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July 31, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Yes, riders should pay more to use Washington ferries

The Washington Transportation Commission voted Tuesday to gradually increase ferry fares by a total of about 6 percent over the next year. The Associated Press covers the basics in this news report, with a breakdown of how the hikes will affect passengers and vehicles as early as Oct. 1, 2013. The good news is youth passengers will get a 50 percent discount on full fares and smaller cars will also get a discount.

Passengers aboard the Washington State Ferry from Bainbridge to Seattle Saturday night, July 27, 2013. (BETTINA HANSEN/THE SEATTLE TIMES)

Passengers aboard the Washington State Ferry from Bainbridge to Seattle Saturday night, July 27, 2013. (BETTINA HANSEN/THE SEATTLE TIMES)

According to the AP story:

For a car or SUV between 14 feet and 22 feet long and a driver, the fare will rise about 25 to 40 cents on Oct. 1 and another 20 to 35 cents on May 1, 2014. For example, the Coupeville to Port Townsend fare for a car and driver would go from $10.20 now to $10.50 in October and $10.75 in May.

Folks will groan about the change, especially those who commute between the islands and their jobs in the Seattle area, but this is a necessary move by the commission. That panel could have considered more drastic measures to raise $328 million needed to meet the Legislature’s budget requirements over the next biennium. In 1999, voters passed Initiative 695, which limited the hated Moter Vehicle Excise Tax to $30. As a result, the ferry system saw revenue designated for its operations budget slashed by 20 percent. The only way to recover those costs is through higher fares, which have ranged between 47 percent and 132 percent. (Click on this link to see Washington State Ferries’ 2012 analysis of routes statements.)

The six percent average increase approved Tuesday is not unusual and nowhere near as drastic as a 20 percent fare increase approved in 2001 and a 12.5 percent increase in 2002. Ridership has decreased over the years, but the system remains the largest in the nation and serves 23 million passengers per year. Here’s some state data to show how fare increases correlated with ridership:

Fiscal Year Fare Increase (%) Ridership (millions)
2001 20 26.1
2002 12.5 25.6
2003 5 24.5
2004 5 26
2005 6 23.9
2006 6 23.8
2007 2.5 24
2008 0 23.3
2009 2.5 22.4
2010 0 22.6
2011 2.5 N/A

(Source: Washington State Transportation Commission)

Farebox recovery — the percentage of Washington State Ferries’ operating costs covered by passenger fares — hit nearly 80 percent in the late 1980s and in 2004, but has since remained 70 percent or less. WSDOT blames the rising cost of fuel. Following the end of MVET funding in 1999, the transportation commission reports the state has subsidized ferry costs by well over $800 million. Resources are strained and the Legislature failed to pass a transportation funding package last session. I don’t see why ferry users can’t be asked to chip in their fair share to help sustain the system.

YEAR FAREBOX RECOVERY RATE (%)
2000 65.8
2001 59.3
2002 69.4
2003 73.2
2004 78.5
2005 75.5
2006 73.6
2007 69.7
2008 64.7
2009 65.4
2010 70.5

(Source: Washington State Transportation Commission)

Washington residents and tourists have a love-hate relationship with the ferry system. Concerns about waste (uncovered in this 2010 investigative series by KING 5) persist, but this 2012 Ferry Riders Opinion Group survey shows 68 percent of respondents are still satisfied with the overall system. Again, the state’s ferry fleet is the largest in the U.S. and accommodates 23 million riders and 10 million cars every year, making it an an essential player in our local economy. To keep it afloat, we have to get used to the idea of paying for the rising cost of basic maintenance and operations.

In case you’re interested in knowing how much the state subsidizes each rider, here’s an interesting chart from WSDOT’s 2012 route analysis showing the amount ranged from $2.71 in 2007 to $3.34 in 2012:

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 1.56.09 AMFor a breakdown of the price differences you can expect to see Oct. 1, 2013 and in 2014, click on this link.

Comments | Topics: fees, transportation, washington state ferry


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