Ferry fortunes are getting a positive spin

If you want some symbol of progress at Colman Dock, look no further than the pending eviction of the “people mover” walkway that never moves any people.

The ramp up from Alaskan Way – which must have seemed pretty innovative in its day, but for years has sat idle and forlorn like a refugee from some dystopian Futureland – will be torn out this fall as Seattle’s aging ferry terminal gets a comprehensive and long-needed makeover. Also in the works, as reported in this issue, is a food court anchored by one of our own home-grown businesses, Commuter Comforts.

Hard to believe such improvements could be coming from Washington State Ferries, which has spent the past few years adrift in financial straits. Yet for Mike Thorne, who just passed the two-year mark as system CEO, the changes represent a long-range plan that’s just now coming together.

“This is an interesting and fascinating system,” Thorne told us this week. “It’s so essential to the life of Puget Sound. The financial challenges have been significant, and I’m encouraged by the response internally to meet those challenges.”

Thorne was on the island to talk to our mayor about the future of the Eagle Harbor maintenance yard property – no news, he said – and stopped by the Review to chat about the WSF’s current fortunes. He was upbeat – chipper, really – his mood enhanced by the apparent success of the so-called “5+5+5 plan” toward financial stability.

Readers will recall that after I--695 kicked the financial legs out from under the ferry system, eliminating some operations and most capital funding, the very viability of the service was in doubt. After a study by a blue-ribbon panel, WSF was given the mandate of covering 80 percent of its own operating costs by 2012 (cost recovery at that point was in the high 60s, as we recall, and almost non-existent on the passenger-only runs). Thorne and Co. responded with goals of cutting expenses by

5 percent, raising fares by 5 percent annually, and boosting revenues by 5 percent through new retail and advertising.

Long-established sailings were rejiggered – Bainbridge Island lost a late-night run, and the foot ferries were jettisoned – with cost savings ensuing. Fare hikes continue, while the recently announced concessions contracts may turn around what was essentially a money-loser for the system in past years. New opportunities in advertising – both on the vessels for their captive audience of riders, and of the vessels themselves as tourist draws – are just now being explored.

Thorne’s good news: By the end of the current biennium – July 2005 – WSF should reach the 80 percent cost-recovery mark, seven years ahead of schedule. By 2009, he said, annual fare hikes should be tied to inflation, rather than the 5 percent hikes riders have seen of late. New fare revenues and funding from the legislature are being kicked back into the system’s capital coffers to fund ferry construction – and terminal restoration, exemplified by the planned removal of the “people mover” – bolstered by federal funds secured by the state’s congressional delegation.

So this week at least, the discussion was not about how to save the ferry system, but rather, how to improve the ridership experience. Colman Dock is getting a makeover. And Mike Thorne has a new food court to promote.

To be sure, the fare hikes are less than popular, and Thorne took plenty of lumps from the union when the concessions contract fell apart and galley jobs were lost. But the system as he inherited it, he says, was simply untenable.

“Change is not something you blow through with ease,” Thorne mused. “It’s demanding, it’s taxing, and it causes

people to react. Now it’s a question of getting some of the

evidence out that shows favorable results.”

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