Southworth commuters sound off

Few commuters showed up at the meeting at John Sedgwick Junior High School Thursday night to listen to Washington State Ferries officials announce their latest fare increase proposal.

But those who did were not happy.

“(You) may be tired of us coming out here and asking you for fare increases — and believe me, we’re tired of asking for them,” said WSF Director Mike Anderson, after Planning Director Ray Deardorf announced the latest proposed fare hikes.

Scheduled to take effect this May, if approved, the proposal will raise fares by 6 percent systemwide, an amount Anderson described as “moderate” compared to the 20 percent increase hinted at last year after fuel prices rose sharply.

“I know 5 to 6 percent doesn’t feel moderate,” he continued, but said his agency had no choice due to both the “huge spike in fuel prices,” and the fatal funding blow he said WSF suffered when I-695 repealed the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) in 1999.

Anderson said the “financial panic” that loss caused was partly due to his agency getting “all our eggs from one basket and never thinking that (the basket) would go away,” but he said in the past few years his staff had worked hard to make their operations “as lean and mean as they can be.”

When one audience member asked the officials to give specific examples of what those cost-saving measures were, Budget Director Bill Green pointed to service cuts instituted in 2000 and 2003, along with hiring freezes that included both service and management positions.

However, Green said that at the same time that WSF was cutting some expenditures, other costs — such as insurance, fuel and heightened security measures — increased.

“We can’t control the cost of fuel, but we can control our consumption,” Green said, explaining that he thought the agency overall was “doing a good job (reducing spending and was) working very hard to be mindful of expenses.”

But Anderson said that despite all these measures his agency was still facing a $37.4 million budget shortfall, an amount the latest fare increase would only reduce by $7.5 million.

The rest, he said, the Legislature is covering by shifting funds from the Motor Vehicle Account Funds.

The borrowing from one pot to fill another made his agency “feel like beggars,” he said, and acknowledged that “it was an ongoing problem that needs a permanent solution.”

In an attempt to find a solution, Anderson said Gov. Christine Gregoire’s budget this year included funding for a study that would look for potential long-term funding sources.

“Hopefully, that will lead us to some answers,” he said.

In the meantime, however, Anderson said that fare increases were being proposed. For the Triangle route, the proposal will raise the current price for a car-and-driver trip from Southworth to Fauntleroy by 50 cents to $8.70, and up the cost of a Frequent User book for the same route by $8 to $139.20.

Passenger fares will increase from $4.70 to $5, and round-trip passenger-only fares from Seattle to Vashon would rise 40 cents to $8.50.

Most of the commuters who attended Thursday’s meeting, however, came to voice their objections to the proposed change in motorcycle fares, which have previously comprised one fifth of a vehicle fare.

Now, WSF is proposing that the rate be one-fourth, which would raise tickets 60 cents on trips between Fauntleroy and Southworth, and nearly a dollar — 95 cents — on trips between Vashon and either Fauntleroy or Southworth.

Deardorf said the increase in motorcycle fees was needed because there has been a steady increase in the number of such vehicles on the ferries, and they were taking up more space than they had in the past.

“Motorcycles no longer fit in the nooks and crannies,” he said. “They are starting to take up vehicle space, and we want the tariffs to reflect that.”

A handful of motorcycle riders who attended the meeting voiced strong opposition to the change, saying they disagreed with the notion that their cycles were taking up more space.

One man intimated that WSF saw the potential for motorcycle fare increases as “a ripe apple they wanted to pluck,” and lamented the fact that more commuters had not attended the meeting.

“They all got off the ferry and drove right by,” said another man, explaining that he asked fellow commuters if they would be attending the meeting, but said their response was “why come, they’re just going to raise the fares anyway?”

WSF officials assured the audience members that their comments were being recorded, and would be reported to first the Tariff Policy Committee (TPC), then ultimately the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC).

“We are not just rubber-stamping this deal,” Deardorf said. “Your input has made big differences in the past. We are listening.”

He explained that all the public comment collected at Thursday’s meeting — and the six more still to be held — would be forwarded to the WSTC before it convenes on March 23 to consider approving the proposal.

“There the members will (take) additional testimony from the public, either written or verbal,” he said, explaining that the commission can choose to adopt, amend or halt the fare increases.

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