Ferry fares due for another increase

Washington State Ferries has suffered recent financial setbacks that will lead to noticeable fare increases in the near future, according to a high-ranked WSF executive.

“We did make some gains with (former WSF CEO) Mike Thorne’s initiatives,” said Washington State Director of Transportation Doug MacDonald. “But every single gain was wiped out by fuel increases. Each ferry takes 18,000 gallons of fuel at a time, so our current budget hole is $15 to $18 million.”

McDonald visited Kitsap County Friday afternoon to address a luncheon meeting at McCormick Woods of the Kitsap Peninsula Visitor and Convention Bureau.

He said the ferry system makes it possible for many Kitsap citizens to commute to Seattle.

Conversely, Kitsap County represents an important part of King County’s growth management process.

MacDonald said the scheduled 5 percent increase next May will not cover costs, but it was unlikely that an additional increase would be tacked on at that time.

Still, a significant increase will be necessary sometime in 2005 if the system is to remain healthy.

All fare increases must be approved by the legislature.

MacDonald said WSF was more open to ideas about new revenue streams than in the past.

Since fuel prices increase and income stays constant, various options need to be explored.

MacDonald said it was important for WSF management to listen to these ideas and not knee-jerk into a negative reaction. Some alternate streams come from kiosks, wireless service and the newly established food service at Colman Dock.

Additionally, passengers paying higher fares due to fuel costs will resent the increase, as there will be no perceptible change in service.

Both boats and piers will need replacement or upgrading.

“We need to work hard to make sure the boats are delivered at a good price,” MacDonald said. “The terminals are old, and some are in pretty ratty shape. Everything was designed in a sleepier time and a less complicated environment, when we weren’t carrying such a heavy burden.”

The possibilities of opening a new ferry dock location are slim, so the system has to be satisfied with locations that are already in place; even if they are less than ideal.

MacDonald said some riders see the ferries as “buses on the water,” but this charicterization misses the boat.

“There is a tradition of the sea,” he said. “The crew take their jobs very seriously and they do a highly professional job.”

MacDonald said WSF represents the only transportation option for many people, bit this does not give it the license to charge whatever it wants.

“Loyalty is high,” MacDonald said. “Many people think their daily ferry ride is one o the best parts of their lives. But we are facing a very important challenge. And every time we fail it’s like a kid going bad.”

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