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Pay up: another ferry fare hike in the works

Most fares would jump 6 percent, while motorcyclists would see a 14 percent hike.

Like birthdays, taxes and gray hairs, ferry fare hikes are one of those things islanders have come to count on with each passing year.

This year, fares may increase by 6 percent for most passengers, while motorcycle riders may see their ticket prices rise by 14 percent boost, according to a recommendation by the state Department of Transportation.

“It’s because the (state) Legislature would like the ferry system to reach 80 percent of operating costs with the fare box,” said Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Susan Harris-Huether. “Higher and higher fuel costs mean we haven’t quite reached 80 percent.”

A typical car-and-driver ticket will grow from $10.60 to $11.25 and motorcycles from $4.60 to $5.25, if the price hike is approved and implemented in May.

The substantial fare boost for motorcycle riders was long overdue, Harris-Huether said. Motorcycles have for years been considered one-fifth the size of a typical car or truck. WSF would now like to update that estimate to one-fourth.

“Motorcycles have grown in size over the years, and so has the number of them,” Harris-Huether said. “They’re not tucked into the nooks and crannies anymore.”

The expected fare increase would follow a trend started after the 2001 passage of Initiative 695, which cut the state motor-vehicle excise tax to $30 per driver. The initiative reduced WSF’s operating funding by 20 percent and slashed boat, terminal and capital project budgets by about 75 percent. WSF announced a 20 percent fare hike in 2001 to fill its budget gaps, increasing a peak-season vehicle- and-driver ticket from $8.25 to $10.

Each subsequent year saw substantial changes at the fare box, with increases of 12.5 percent in 2002, 6.7 percent in 2003, 4.2 in 2004 and a 6.4 percent in 2005.

Bainbridge Ferry Advisory Committee member David Groves understands WSF’s reasons for the hikes, but believes the increases have to slow down.

“We have a certain amount of sympathy because of the cost of fuel, which is driving this up,” he said. “But we don’t have a lot of sympathy over how we’ve seen a like a 70 percent increase” over six years.

Besides the impact on regular riders’ pocketbooks, Groves fears the hikes may increase the cost of doing business on the west side of the sound.

“Ferry communities rely on freight mobility,” he said. “This might make it less economical to ship goods and sell them at a competitive price.”

Growing ticket prices may also put a dent in the island’s tourism industry.

“Tourists walking around Seattle may get sticker shock when then see the prices,” he said. “They might say, ‘Well, let’s do something else instead of going to Bainbridge.’”

Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island) said he understands the impacts of rising fuel costs on the state ferry system. However, he believes the trend of rising ticket prices is “not a good idea.”

“I can’t imagine anyone’s happy about it,” he said. “I’d like to find an alternative to this.”

Rockefeller said he supports “digging down” into state highway funds to offset the increases in fares.

The state Transportation Commission plans to hold a series of public hearings on the proposed increases beginning next month. If approved, the rate hikes would begin May 1.

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