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State planning to pick ferry riders’ brains

A series of meetings held earlier this month to questions ferry riders is just the beginning of an extensive survey the Washington State Transportation Commission will be conducting over the next year.

“This is part of a very, very big effort underway,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of the commission, explaining that the legislature gave the commission $350,000 to conduct “a very detailed assessment” of the Washington State Ferries system.

“There are a whole bunch of things in play, including a long-term study of ferry finances that the commission has also been directed to conduct,” Griffith said.

As for the first meetings, those were “small group discussions” conducted by Opinion Research Northwest during the week of Nov. 12. According to the research group, the discussions were designed to gather “rider opinions and information” about why, when and where they ride ferries, and also how loyal they are to the routes or even particular sailings they currently take.

Griffith said this survey would be the first of its kind, since other efforts like the agencies’ regular “Origin and Destination” studies simply record where riders came from and where they are going.

“This survey will collect people’s attitudes toward the ferries,” Griffith said, explaining that it is not a “customer-satisfaction survey,” but intended to give the commission and WSF a “better understanding of ferry riders’ attitudes and behaviors.”

For example, Griffith said that one of the concerns currently when it comes to the agency’s revenue is a recent report on the WSF that revealed there are a number of ferries that run with few, if any, passengers onboard.

“They’re kind of running like buses — they’re empty,” she said, explaining that the survey will find out how strongly riders are tied to a particular ferry run.

“We don’t want to cut service, but we want to gauge how much flexibility people have as far as times,” Griffith said, explaining that the commission also hopes to “test pricing strategies,” as well.

“The ferry system is in some pretty desperate times financially, and everybody is really trying to get all the data they can,” she said, explaining that the commission hopes to find out how much of a role the fares play in their decision to ride the ferries — or not.

The information gathered may then help the WSF decide if strategies such as lowering fares on off-peak runs may help alleviate some of the strain on runs during peak commute times.

“We’re trying to determine what (riders) can and can’t tolerate,” she said.

The survey currently is in its “qualitative phase,” and in mid-January Griffith said the “quantitative” part should begin, which will be “running through October, (2008), when the report is due.”

Visit the survey group at www.nwrg.com, or the commission at www.wstc.wa.gov/ for more information.

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