Officials: Raise fares or cut ferries deeper

"Since Initiative 695 put voters in control of the pursestrings, lawmakers in Olympia are forced to make do with money they already have.But Washington State Ferries can’t simply make do. The initiative wiped out $155 million of its $583 million, two-year budget. Ferry officials responded by making $22 million in service cuts and filling the rest of the deficit with savings and highway fundThe fill-in money was temporary, however. Ferry officials say fare hikes are the only way to prevent deeper cuts after the fill money runs out.Here again, voters hold the pursestrings. Although the state Transportation Commission previously had the authority to raise ferry fares, those now are subject to voter approval.A plan proposed to the Transportation Commission Wednesday might change that. Instead of putting each fare hike up for statewide vote, the Tarriff Policy Committee suggested asking voters to reinstate the commission’s authority to raise fares Tariff committee chairwoman Alice Tawresey, former mayor of Bainbridge Island, said the proposal still needs a review by the state attorney general. But she said it could win statewide voter approval—even among voters in eastern Washington.“Why wouldn’t they agree to let ferry riders pay as much as they want to pay?” Tawresey asked.But the question of how much ferry riders are willing to pay is far from settled. Tawresey’s committe hopes to bring it before the riders in March during 11 public meetings—including March 15 for Southworth ferry riders and March 29 for Bremerton riders—and this month at five ferry advisory committee meetings. The committee includes Sen. Bob Oke (R-26th District).Tarriff Policy Committee members said they aren’t planning public meetings just for show. They are concerned about how the fare hikes will be received—and whether people will keep riding.The economic principle of demand plays into the fare increase debate. Tawresey said she doesn’t expect a rate increase to discourage commuters from using the ferry system, but she said some people who take their cars on ferries might decide to walk on instead. And people who make discretionary trips for entertainment or shopping might opt to spend their time and money locally.Both activities erode ferry revenue. As rates increase, the ferry system expects the number or riders to decrease. That means a 40 percent increase in fares is likely to bring in only 30 percent additional revenue. And 40 percent is the number that ferry system planning director Ray Deardorf said will bring in the $16.5 million to $20 million needed to prevent further ferry cuts.No one knows exactly how fare hikes will change ferry riders’ habits, because the system’s fares have never increased so drastically. The largest single-year increase was 16 percent. Tawresey said her committee therefore recommends the “go slow approach” to gauge rider response.Terry McCarthy, state ferries deputy director, agreed. “We can monitor rider numbers and make trend decisions in short order,” he said.McCarthy said he expects the Legislature to address the future of the ferry system in its 2001 session, but Tawresey said fare increases can’t wait if service is to be maintained.State Secretary of Transportation Sid Morrison also insists that the Transportation Commission come up with something for legislators to approve this session.“We need to move this process forward,” he said, “ to keep the legislators’ feet to the fire so we can have tools by the end of the 60-day session.”The tariff committee’s proposal—to give the Transportation Commission authority to raise fares—could go before voters in September or November if the Legislature takes action on the proposal this session.Although the 40 percent fare increase is the one ferry officials expect will reclaim enough money for minimum service, riders will also be asked to consider a 50 percent proposed increase. Both proposals raise fares in two steps.But a proposed across-the-board 40 percent boost wouldn’t raise fares that amount for every destination. Some routes cost more to run based on distance, such as the San Juan Island routes. “Historically, these have been subsidized more heavily than other runs,” Tawresey said. So the committee proposed a new baseline fare to combine with the 40 or 50 percent increase.In the case of the Anacortes-Friday Harbor run, drivers pay just $8.88 now for a run that should cost $10.75, officials said. And the short trip from Fauntleroy to Southworth that costs $6.50 now should cost $5, based on distance.There is also a disparity in the cost of ferry service for Kitsap County. Based on distance, Bremerton trips should cost $9.75, Bainbridge Island should remain at $6.50, and Kingston should be $5.25. But if the fare-setters made one Kitsap County run significantly more expensive than the others, drivers would likely choose to travel on the cheaper ferries.That’s why the committe established two “travelsheds.”"

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