Ferry riders are paying fair share, and more

Some routes are going to make money, some routes aren’t. That’s a simple fact of transportation systems: popular routes will subsidize those less traveled, allowing extension of the system – be it buses, trains or planes – to the farthest reaches of local civilization.

  • Wednesday, January 10, 2007 8:00pm
  • Opinion

Some routes are going to make money, some routes aren’t.

That’s a simple fact of transportation systems: popular routes will subsidize those less traveled, allowing extension of the system – be it buses, trains or planes – to the farthest reaches of local civilization.

It’s even true for publicly financed roadways, if you think of Olympia’s ongoing investment in obscure rural routes in the less populace corners of the state. Farmer John and his tractor aren’t paying for that country highway – the city folk are.

Still, something rankled a bit in the disclosure last week that Bainbridge-Seattle ferry riders are covering 111 percent of their route’s operating costs at the farebox. This, when Vashon-Seattle foot-ferry fares reportedly cover just 22 percent of costs, and other runs lag as well.

The system-wide target for farebox recovery established by the Legislature is 80 percent, well above the norm for public transit; thanks to now annual fare hikes – 62 percent in just five years – the system covers 76 percent of overall operating costs at the toll booth. Those of us in the heavily used “travel shed” of Bainbridge, Bremerton, Kingston and Seattle keep the rest of the system afloat.

You would expect that, given that the central sound account for more than half of WSF’s total ridership.

More troublesome is the implication, contained in the recently released Washington State Ferries Financing Study, that the fare hikes will continue. WSF’s long-range plan shows farebox recovery hitting a whopping 109 percent of operating costs by 2029, and excess revenues would be shifted to the capital budget to pay for new boats, ferry terminal renovation and other projects. Not only are Bainbridge riders paying more than our share today, we’re going to be paying even more tomorrow.

Was this what the Legislature had in mind when it established the 80 percent farebox recovery target? We don’t think so; as the financing study notes, there’s no clear policy giving WSF the authority to overcharge riders and shift the leftover money to other corners of the budget. Presumably, once the system began covering 80 percent of operating costs through fares, WSF and state transportation officials were supposed to look elsewhere for needed revenues – especially as the capital budget will fall short by hundreds of millions of dollars, even with a subsidy by riders.

Also contained in the financing study is a proposal for “peak hour” surcharges, to better distribute ridership over the course of a day and rake in more money besides.

They might as well call the idea the “commuter surcharge,” as it would balance WSF’s books squarely on the backs of those who use the ferry system to get to and from work, as well as businesses that count on the conveyance of goods at each end of the work day. It may make sense for maximizing ferry capacity, but for cross-sound commerce, it’s wrong.

The Legislature directed Washington State Ferries to recover 80 percent of operating costs at the toll both, and we’re almost there; subtract Vashon and we probably are there. No one seems to have asked, “what then?”

It’s time someone does. Ferry riders are already doing our share to keep the system solvent – some of us, more than.

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