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WSF scales back proposed fare hike

Ferry riders could see fares climb by 5 percent beginning in May, significantly less than the hike proposed earlier under a two-year old plan for stepped increases.

The lower-than-anticipated hike was endorsed by the Tariff Policy Committee at its meeting Wednesday. Washington STate Ferries will instead cut some operations costs, and try to generate new revenue through advertising and retail services.

“We intend to make the Colman Dock a retail-service area,” WSF spokesperson Pat Patterson said. “We are not only interested in the traffic in the terminal, but also in the retail business we think is available in the holding area.”

Patterson said a survey of ferry riders has shown that their principal interest area is beverages – everything from hot coffee to cold beer. She said riders are also interested in a convenience store at the dock that would sell newspapers and magazines, among other items.

On the boats themselves, WSF may institute an internet-access system and television reception, so those who leave Mariners baseball games in the seventh inning can catch the end on the way home.

The retail-service thrust will begin in the downtown Seattle terminal, where 40 percent of the system’s riders begin or end their trips. But the plan will expand quickly to other substantial terminals, particularly Bainbridge and Anacortes, Patterson said.

Ferry riders will also start seeing more advertising both onboard and ashore, Patterson said, although the exact nature has not yet been determined.

“We have had suggestions ranging from advertising in the restrooms to selling naming rights for the boats,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll sell naming rights, and people have said they don’t want to be inundated with flashing lights. Whatever we do will be in good taste.”

Patterson said WSF hopes to raise from $5 million to $7 million in the first couple of years, and eventually to generate 5 percent of its annual operating budget – currently $300 million – through retail and advertising efforts.

WSF is also aiming to shave 5 percent from that operating budget through greater efficiencies. The first step in that direction was the new Bainbridge sailing schedule, which reduced the number of daily sailings by one, saving both fuel and worker overtime payments.

“We’re looking at each of the routes on the system to see where else there might be savings,” Patterson said.

The cost-saving and revenue-generation efforts – part of a new business plan that WSF adopted recently – will allow the agency to substantially exceed the legislatively mandated goal that riders pay 80 percent of the system’s operating costs even with a more moderate rate of fare increases, Patterson said.

“We project that by 2007, riders will be paying 90 percent of those costs,” she said.

WSF recommended annual fare increases of 5 percent both this year and next to make the increases predictable, Patterson said. The Tariff Policy Committee, chaired by Alice Tawresey of Bainbridge Island, adopted that plan at a Wednesday meeting in Seattle. If adopted by the state Transportation Commission in January, the increases will take effect the first weekend in May.

Tawresey said the percentage increase had not been translated to specific dollars and cents, but would be right at 5 percent for the various classes of tickets on the Bainbridge-Seattle run.

That formula suggests that a single-rider fare would go from the present $5.10 to $5.35 or $5.40. The auto fares would go from the present $9 in the winter low season and $11.50 during the peak summer months to $9.45 or $9.50 in the winter and $12.10 in peak season.

The cost of 10-ride tickets will rise more than 5 percent because the TPC recommends reducing the discount from the present 25 percent off single-ride tickets to 20 percent. That would make the price of those books roughly $43.

“Most of the discount tickets are used at peak hours, which would normally command a premium,” Tawresey said. “But some discount is justified because they are so much easier to use.”

For daily commuters, monthly passes will still be the best way to go. The present price of $62.20 should go to roughly $65.30 – somewhat less than the price of 16 coupon-book tickets.

While Tawresey said the use of monthly passes has increased considerably since the last fare hike, usage is still hampered by the fact that the monthly passes aren’t sold at the ticket windows, only at participating merchants. On Bainbridge, Town & Country Market and Safeway sell the passes, adding $1 for a processing fee.

“The problem is that we’re not equipped to handle the thousands of people who would want those passes the first of every month,” Tawresey said.

She hopes that problem will end in the foreseeable future. WSF plans to institute automated toll mechanisms by 2004.

The plan, similar to many metropolitan transit systems, would allow users to buy cards good for either a specific dollar amount or for a specific period of time. The user would then simply swipe that card through a reader and have the appropriate fare deducted.

In addition to speed and convenience, such a system would allow for more sophisticated fare-setting, Tawresey said, based on things like congestion pricing – lower fares during off-peak hours, premium fares during peak periods.

“A rider could look at the schedule and tell by shadings what the price would be at any particular time,” she said. “But that is very cumbersome and confusing for ticket agents.”

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