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Bainbridge ferry ridership dips

While Washington State Ferries ridership is down slightly this year, higher fares imposed in June have, for now at least, yielded an overall increase in revenue.

Between June and October of this year, WSF collected nearly $53.8 million in fare revenue, up from $47 million during the same period in 2000.

That came despite an almost 5 percent drop in ridership beginning in June, when Central Puget Sound fares were raised an average of 20 percent.

“We’re right on target,” said Alice Tawresey of Bainbridge Island, chair of the Transportation Commission’s Tariff Policy Committee.

“We expected that when we raised fares a very large amount, ridership would drop.”

WSF officials and forecasters are reluctant to attribute the drop-off in ferry passengers to the fare increase, citing other factors such as a dwindling economy, Boeing layoffs and the terrorist attacks.

Not only did the attacks depress travel, but the heightened security led to a number of cancelled runs and service curtailments, including closing the system to vehicle traffic for a period of time.

Tawresey said that the sharpest ridership drops came on the Bainbridge run.

“I think some of that may be a reflection of the collapse of the dot coms, where former commuters don’t have a job to go to anymore,” she said.

State forecasters, though, don’t think the higher farebox revenue will continue. They have dropped their forecast of farebox revenue from $227 million to $217 million for the biennium that runs through 2002.

That projection adds to the woes facing the Legislature when it reconvenes in January, because it brings the gap between ferry-system operating expenses and income to $40 million – about 12 percent of the WSF operations budget of $322 million.

“Right out of the box, we’ll be looking at that hole to fill in the ferry budget,” said Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton. “Going back to Olympia in January is not so appealing to me right now.”

The biggest portion of the ferry’s budget gap – $30 million – arises from the fact that during the last legislative session, the funds were earmarked for the WSF in a bill that passed the senate but not the house.

While the senate approved spending down surplus funds in a closed state pension plan for retired law-enforcement officers and firefighters to balance the budget, the house never agreed to such a plan.

Kitsap legislators and county commissioners heard the news at a recent legislative conference sponsored by the Washington Association of Counties.

They got worried.

“Obviously we’re concerned, but we also expect our Kitsap legislators to work with the governor to continue funding Washington State ferries, since they are part of the state highway system,” said county Commissioner Chris Endresen. “But it’s going to be tough with the state budget experiencing shortfalls.”

WSF interim director Terry McCarthy said lowered costs of fuel offset the fare-box revenue decline. “Our expected expenditures are about to go down by $11.5 million,” he said. “That’s mainly because gas prices are going down.”

Meanwhile, McCarthy said WSF is operating currently as if the funding for the agency is in place, as prescribed by last session’s ferry funding bill.

“It’s true we have legislative financial issues to be dealt with this next session, but we’re not in a panic mode,” said McCarthy.

Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, was briefed with numbers indicating the forecast revenue shortfalls for ferries should be mitigated by dropping fuel prices.

“But we’re still looking at a $30 million hole at least,” said Oke. “If we can get it fixed next session, great. But if not, there will be major cuts to service.”

That’s what has lawmakers particularly concerned.

Sheldon says she’s worried passenger-only ferries are a particularly vulnerable target.

“Passenger-only-ferry service is expensive and it doesn’t bring in the same ratio of revenue (as car ferries),” said Sheldon. “For Kitsap County, passenger-only ferries are always teetering on the edge. I don’t want to see it eliminated.”

Legislators, WSF officials and other ferry advocates say they plan to work together next year to craft a stable operating fund for the ferry system.

And the Tariff Policy Committee will also address the issue. Tawresey said the group will meet Friday of this week and next Monday to begin considering another fare increase for next year, moving the system closer to the legislature’s goal of recovering 80 percent of ferry operating expenses from fares.

“There will probably be another across-the-board increase for revenue generation,” she said. “We have to look at the economy and the elasticity of demand – the amount ridership drops when fares increase – to figure out how much.”

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