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Horluck sailing stormy seas

"Horluck Transportation Co. owner Hilton Smith expects to hear Aug. 9 whether the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) will grant him a 33 percent cash fare increase.Meanwhile, UTC investigators are trying to figure out whether the passenger-only ferry service is meeting standards set by the state under its certificate-of-monopoly program. When Smith purchased Horluck in 1995, he also bought a certificate of monopoly, with some strings attached. Under this program, Smith is required to provide reasonable and adequate service to his customers and regularly furnish the commission with accurate financial reports.This certificate isn't granted in perpetuity, explained Ann Rendahl, an assistant state attorney general. There are some provisos.This recent investigation closely follows a flurry of phone calls to the UTC from long-time Horluck passengers who are reportedly fed up with what they call unreliable, inconsistent service. But UTC officials Monday wouldn't confirm or deny whether the investigation is linked to these complaints, noting the study's results won't be made immediately public. UTC officials also couldn't say whether results from the investigation will be announced at the Aug. 9 meeting.When asked, Smith said he hadn't heard of any extensive complaint-driven investigation, but noted the UTC performs routine studies of how well his company, or any other company that holds a certificate with the commission, is performing.Nevertheless, faithful foot-ferry commuters are growing restless, and are passing around the number to the UTC's complaint hotline.We just don't have a reliable foot-ferry system at this time, said Paul Miner, a long-time ferry commuter and safety inspector at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. He is just one of many riders concerned about the future of Horluck.I have been riding the Horluck ferries for 10 years, and I don't remember a time there were so many breakdowns, Miner said. We (the riders) don't want to put Horluck or Hilton Smith out of business. That isn't what we want at all. We just want to be sure of the service.The MV Mary L, Horluck's fastest, 98-passenger foot-ferry has been sidelined for more than a week while maintenance crews installed a hand-made part and tested her for seaworthiness. Horluck manager Ed Morgan predicted Monday the Mary L would be up and running again by Tuesday morning. And, the Spirit of '76, Mary L's only backup boat, ran charters for Smith's Seattle-based business - Waterways Marine Group - over the last two weekends. That meant only partial service for foot ferry riders on recent Saturdays.Kitsap Transportation, meanwhile, provided bus service to those who couldn't otherwise catch a ride at the Horluck docks in Bremerton and Port Orchard.John Clauson, the service development manager for Kitsap Transit, said buses will remain on standby in case Horluck maintenance crews can't get the Mary L up and running by today.Dan Kermode, a UTC accountant, is currently examining Horluck's ridership data and revenue to determine whether the recent fare-increase request is justified. According to the commission, Horluck is allowed as much as a 7 percent profit margin. Smith formally applied for the second time this year to the commission in early July to raise adult cash fares from $1.50 to $2.Earlier this year, Smith asked the UTC to raise cash-carrying passenger fares 50 percent, from $1.50 to $2.25. Smith withdrew his request in March, days before Kermode planned to recommend the commission deny higher fares.At the time, Smith said he withdrew his request because he heard a rumor Kitsap Transit was going to roll back its increased fare rates.Since January, Smith argues that the higher monthly passes hurt his company because nearly 90 percent of Horluck's ridership last year purchased the monthly booklets to ride its foot ferries for free.Only about 60 percent use them now, he said, and cash-carrying passengers just can't completely make up the difference.In an agreement between Kitsap Transit and Horluck, the agency reimburses Horluck for carrying its customers across Sinclair Inlet, which is less costly than busing them around.So Smith said he needs to raise cash fares to make up for the loss of Kitsap Transit transfer stubs.Smith said Horluck has lost around $87,000 this year, and he's invested nearly as much refurbishing his vessels.If granted, the fare increase would be effective Aug. 10, and would secure an additional $10,000 a month for the company, Smith said."

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