Ferry fares poised to increase 2.5 percent in October

OLYMPIA — State ferry riders will face 2.5 percent fare increases in each of the next two Octobers under a proposal presented this week.

Round-trip passenger prices on Central Sound routes would bump from $8.20 currently to $8.40 on Oct. 1 and to $8.55 the following year, Oct. 1, 2018. One-way car-and-driver tickets would rise from $14.60 to $15 to $15.35.

The state transportation budget approved last month assumes fares will supply $381 million of Washington State Ferries' operating costs during the 2017-19 biennium, up $22.6 million from this biennium. Rate increases will provide $8.4 million and increased ridership $14.2 million, said WSF senior planning manager Ray Deardorf. Fare revenue comprised more than 73 percent of operating costs in 2016.

The previous three fare cycles featured increases in October and May instead of October and October to create more revenue for policy changes. Members of a volunteer ferry advisory committee on tariffs opposed the concept because the May 1 increase came simultaneously with an annual 20 percent peak season surcharge, said chairman Greg Beardsley of Vashon Island.

In 2011, the extra revenue offset lower revenue from the recession. In 2013-15, it offset an increase in the youth discount from 20 percent to half price and allowed passenger fares to be increased less than car fares. In 2015-17, it again offset lower passenger fares and the removal of the over-height surcharge for vehicles less than 22 feet long.

Passengers would also get a slight break relative to drivers in the 2017-19 proposal, with passenger fare increases between 2.1 and 2.5 percent and vehicles between 2.5 and 2.9. The policy favors passengers because ferries have plenty of space for them but often not for cars, and a price break might encourage them not to drive.

The philosophy isn't embraced by the advisory group.

"In general, the group has gone away from the idea that a smaller increase for passengers is going to cause people to change their way of getting on the ferries," Beardsley said. "Ferries and the commission have not."

It sounds good in theory, he said, but people won't give up their cars unless there's a convenient way to travel after they get to the other side. Except for Bainbridge and Bremerton routes to Seattle, there aren't.

Data presented at Tuesday's commission meeting showed only a 1 percent shift in the passenger balance since the policy began, and it could have been affected by other factors besides pricing. Commission chairman Jerry Litt of Douglas County said he'd be "hard-pressed to see this as a real incentive."

"I think the transportation commission was a lot more agreeable to the fact that the spread is not worth it," Beardsley said.

The proposal also would eliminate an extra fare bump for oversized vehicles introduced in 2011 to partially offset the revenue loss from the introduction of the small vehicle fare. There was concern about the bump increasing the price of goods, particularly coming on and off of islands.

It would increase the school group fee and make homeschooled students eligible for it. School groups pay the standard price for their vehicle, but only $1 for the group riding in it. That will be raised to $5 each way.

Public meetings will be held in ferry communities this summer. The proposal will be adopted at a public hearing on July 26.

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