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Two different scenarios in new ferry plan

A draft long-range plan released by Washington State Ferries Friday charts two divergent courses the ailing agency could follow over the next 22 years.

The first – and most expensive – option calls for WSF to maintain its current service, while implementing new operational strategies.

The second option would reincarnate WSF as a leaner agency, dramatically scaling back its services while relying on King and Kitsap County agencies to meet demand with passenger-ferry services.

Both options would result in a multi-billion dollar deficit by 2030, unless new revenue streams were found.

The plan will be presented to the state Legislature on Jan. 31, after WSF holds 10 public hearings to gather input on the plan. A Jan. 13 meeting is scheduled for the Bainbridge Commons.

A 2007 “ferry bill” tasked WSF with creating a long-range plan. Over the course of the year, WSF has been surveying customers, holding public hearings and developing operations and capital strategies to make the system more efficient.

State Reps. Christine Rolfes and Sherry Appleton both said they favor the first option of maintaining the current system. Rolfes called the second option an “unanticipated punt from the ferry service to county taxpayers.”

There are many differences in the two options, but they share several key strategy shifts for the WSF.

Both options would implement a free reservations system for vehicles, which WSF planners believe would minimize waiting-area space needed at terminals, thus avoiding at least $300 million in future terminal expansions. The reservation system would cost $42 million to implement.

According to the draft plan, the reservation system would be customized to meet the needs of each route. No sailings would be 100 percent reserved and priority would be given to carpools, frequent users and local commuters.

The draft plan also calls for $33 million in transit and non-motorized enhancements to boost walk-on ridership. Those enhancements would include better timing with local transit agencies, improved park-and-ride connections and new facilities for walkers and bicyclers.

This strategy is aimed at increasing the number of walk-ons, for which the ferries have plenty of room, while decreasing the number of vehicles.

Under the draft plan, WSF would look to fares to help raise revenue while manipulating demand. In order to meet budget goals, fares would likely need to be raised above annual inflation.

A fuel surcharge that would link fares to fuel prices is one suggestion being floated. The program would automatically increase fares if fuel costs climbed above a baseline price. Another suggestion made in the draft plan is to increase walk-on fares at half the rate of the vehicle fares to create an added incentive for non-motorized passengers.

Two other pricing options were not proposed in the draft plan, but they are still high on WSF’s list. One would create another seasonal surcharge for the months of July and August, when vehicle congestion is the greatest. Commuter pass users would be exempt.

The other option would offer a discount for cars shorter than 12 or 14 feet.

Beyond these operational changes, the draft plan dives in to two new visions for the next 22 years of WSF. Neither option has serious changes in store for Bainbridge service, but could have a huge impact on ferry service elsewhere on Puget Sound.

In the first option, WSF maintains its current service, while restoring a second boat to the Port Townsend-Keystone route and making small capacity increases to all other routes except the Seattle-Bainbridge connection.

Ten new ferries would eventually be purchased to replace retiring vessels. Terminal and transit improvements would be made selectively to keep services running smoothly.

Maintaining the status quo would be costly. WSF projects a $3.5 billion deficit for its capital budget under the first option, while its operations would eke out a $68 million profit.

Under the second long-range option, WSF would begin trimming back service in 2009, beginning with the termination of the Anacortes-Sidney, B.C., service in September.

Port Townsend-Keystone would be kept to one WSF ferry and small service changes would be made to the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route and the Point Defieance-Tahlequah route.

Between 2011 and 2013, WSF would downsize to one ferry on the Bremerton-Seattle route, end night service on the Bremerton-Seattle and Kingston-Edmonds routes, while downsizing the Vahson-Southworth-Fauntleroy routes.

This second option assumes that local transit agencies such as Kitsap Transit and King County Metro would establish foot ferries between Seattle and Bremerton, Seattle and Kingston and Seattle and Southworth. The draft plan points passenger-only ferry planning efforts by Puget Sound Regional Council and recently passed legislation supporting smaller ferry operations as signs of support for a new cross-sound ferry fleet.

Rolfes, who has supported foot-ferry legislation, said such ferries should supplement WSF service rather than supplanting it.

The second option would allow WSF to retire several ferries sooner than now planned, while acquiring just five new ferries over the next 22 years. All terminals would be maintained.

This second option would run $2.1 billion in the red on the capital side over 22 years, while pulling in $719 million in operations revenue for a total budget deficit of $1.4 billion.

Rep. Appleton said she strongly opposes any option that would downsize the ferry system.

“I think it’s very premature that we would want to contract out or sell our ferry system,” she said.

The state would likely end up subsidizing independent ferry services, Appleton said, so it may as well maintain control and ownership. She said a better solution would be to expand gas-tax funding to the system to maintain its current levels.

WSF’s long-range plan does not address new revenue sources. The state Transportation Commission has been studying sustainable funding for the ferries, and will also make recommendations to the Legislature.

One would maintain status quo; second would cut service.

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