WSF floats using fares to tweak riders’ habits

With cars clogging morning and afternoon commuter ferries, and boats running nearly empty midday, Washington State Ferries is looking for ways of getting users to shift their riding behaviors.

Would peak-hour fare increases, and off-peak discounts, get passengers to switch up their schedules?

It’s one of many questions WSF planners are asking in a series of community workshops now underway as they hone strategies to be incorporated in long-range pricing and operations plan to be developed this winter.

This month ferry users have a chance to influence how much they will pay, and how they will be served by ferries in the future.

Meetings have already been held on Whidbey Island, Port Townsend and Anacortes. WSF chief David Moseley and his crew of planners will be at the Norm Dicks Government Center in Bremerton on June 30, and at the Long Lake Bob Oke Community Center — 5448 Long Lake Road — on July 1.

All meetings run from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

What WSF wants to emphasize, spokeswoman Joy Goldenberg said, is that all options are open for discussion.

This round of workshops focuses on two policy strategies for controlling demand — pricing and reservations.

When it comes to fare pricing, WSF is looking to balance the carrot and stick in its approach to dispersing some of the vehicle congestion that peaks on morning and afternoon commuter runs.

Both peak-hour fare increases and off-peak fare discounts are up for discussion. Goldenberg said planners will be asking those attending the workshops if and how these strategies would shift their riding behaviors.

With plenty of room for passengers, but a finite space for vehicles, WSF is also considering ways of pricing fares to encourage walk-ons, bicycles and car pooling.

Among them, planners will float the idea of a graduated fare scale based on how much space a vehicle takes up — one that could differentiate not just between a sedan and a school bus, but between an SUV and a hatchback.

A reservation program is already being tested in Port Townsend, and it’s being looked at for routes system-wide.

Reservations would be used only for vehicles, and WSF planners believe the system could reduce long queues of cars waiting to buy first-come first-serve ferry tickets.

Tickets for the Port Townsend ferry can be reserved online or over the phone. Passengers select the time and date of the run they want, the type and size of their vehicle.

Then they must show up at least a half hour early to claim their spot, and vehicles without reservations can standby to be loaded into unreserved spots.

Tim Caldwell, manager of the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce and member of the Jefferson County FAC, said the reservation system has been well received, especially by visitors.

“They really love that they can get a reservation, and then go anywhere in town, and come back to the boat and not have to line up,” Caldwell said.

Locals, he said, have also gotten used to the system and know which runs they need reservations for and which they board from standby.

Walt Elliot of the Kingston FAC said it’s a system that could be useful in Kingston, where already cars are overflowing the ferry holding lane along Highway 104.

“You have cars kind of straddling the fog line, and that can shut down the highway,” Elliot said.

While pricing and reservations programs will be in the spotlight, Goldenberg said attendees of the meetings will be encouraged to comment on other potential WSF policies.

Among them are strategies to improve transit and car pooling access to terminals, streamline fare collection, enhance pedestrian and bicycle amenities, and generally improve use of terminal space.

Elliot said there are a few things he would like hear that are not on the agenda, like how WSF’s plans to study the impacts new policies will have on communities, and how level of service standards will be set and maintained.

But as long as the meetings allow a free dialogue, it should be a positive forum, Elliot said.

“The object,” he said, “is for people to walk away from the meeting saying, ‘We’ve been able to say our piece.’”

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