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Is ferry fare fair?
"Photo: Tygh Collins buys a ride on the Clinton ferry. Fare prices for commuters like Collins could go up by next year as Washington State Ferries tries to make up for revenue lost to Initiative 695.Matt Johnson / staff photoThink it's expensive to commute to the mainland now? Just wait until early next year.Now that hundreds of thousands of Washington drivers have taken full advantage of the $30 car license tabs delivered via Initiative 695, they may just have to turn around this summer and vote to spend the savings on ferry fares. This week, the Washington State Ferries Tariff Policy Committee (TPC) recommended that ferry fares increase by 40 or 50 percent state-wide to make up for the $155 million hit the system took from the passage of I-695. Those recommendations will now be considered by the state Transportation Commission.On Whidbey Island, ferry users will not feel the pain quite as much as in other places. Under one proposal by the TPC, Clinton and Keystone ferry users would see a 23-28 percent increase in fares, depending on the run and whether or not a rider drives on.A second proposal would cost more, charging 30-37 percent higher fares. Still, these numbers translate into car and driver fees of $5.75 to $6 on the Mukilteo run, and $8 to $8.75 on the Port Townsend run.Daily commuter Tygh Collins said he voted against I-695 and is not pleased about the proposed fare increases. He works on South Whidbey as an electrician's apprentice, commuting from Everett. Higher fares will only make it too expensive for some wager earners to commute between work and home, slowing the economy in Western Washington, he believes.Richard LaLonde does not use the ferry on a daily basis. But, while waiting in the Clinton ferry line Thursday, he said he knows fare increases will come down hard on commuters.Six dollars for me is still reasonable, but I'm glad I'm not a commuter, LaLonde said.Still, the initial shock the proposed new fares is causing may not ever make it to the ticketing booths. Ray Deardorf, State Ferries' planning director, said that even though the TPC is satisfied with its recommendations, that does not mean that the ferry system will get to raise fares. I-695 not only cut WSF funding this year; it may also hamstring the fare increase because state voters -- not the Transportation Commission -- have the final yay or nay.When a final fare proposal goes out to the public in March, Deardorf said, State Ferries does not only have to convince voters to pass it, but to be ready to pass a second increase one year later. Like it or not, that is what it will take to keep the ferries running on their current schedules.And what if the public's attitude is or not? Ferries will see another $30 million shortfall in fiscal year 2002. It is a loss the system cannot absorb simply by taking a few boats out of service, as it will do this year when the ferries Hyak, Hiyu, Quinault, Sealth, Evergreen, Chinook, Snohomish, Skagit, Kalama, and Tyee are shut down.It would be difficult to do unless we closed down some routes, Deardorf said. It's possible the public vote on fare increases will not happen. The portion of I-695 that requires a vote for all tax and fee increases is being challenged in court. But until the courts decide, Ferries has to plan for a fare plebescite.Alice Tawresey, chairperson of the TCP, noted in the committee's recommendations that ferry routes that pay for most of their operating costs, such as Clinton, should not be subject to the same increases other routes receive. The Clinton-Mukilteo route currently pays for 92 percent of its operating expenses through fares collected. So the percentage increase in the proposed fares for Whidbey's ferries was adjusted downward.Other runs, such as those between Anacortes and the San Juan Islands, will see increases greater than 50 percent.Any increases would take effect in January 2001, said Terry McCarthy, deputy director of Washington State Ferries, at an advisory board meeting Thursday in Freeland.With the increase, Clinton-Mukilteo may bring in more money than it needs to support its operations. Any excess, said Ray Deardorf, will go to fund other routes in the system.Several routes will exceed 100 percent, he said.If they are passed by voters, the fare increases will not cover shortfalls in the WSF capital expenses budget. Deardorf said the system will have to look to the legislature if it wishes to finish dock reconstruction projects like the one at the Clinton dock.To put the new fares into effect for fiscal year 2001, WSF must hold a statewide election sometime this calendar year. Deardorf could not say when such an election might be held."