Ferry fare increases are certain

"Washington's ferry chief gave South Whidbey ferry riders little room for argument Thursday night when he told about 40 people that they either have to pay more for their ferry tickets or start driving across Deception Pass Bridge to get to Everett and Seattle.In the old days when we used to ask you for money, we used to give you something, said Terry McCarty, Washington State Ferries interim director. But the fact is, we're broke.In a brutally honest, one-hour question and answer session at Freeland's Trinity Lutheran Church, McCarty and a cadre of other ferry officials said it is either WSF's way or the highway -- literally -- when it comes to a system-wide 20-percent average fare increase planned for this May. South Whidbey ferry riders can expect to pay $5 each way to move one car and one driver from Clinton to Mukilteo during most of the year. That is an increase of 50 cents over the current ticket price of $4.50. The peak season price will be $6.25. Without the increases, McCarty said, the system would have to cut run schedules and perhaps shut down entire runs.Though WSF officials are taking comment at 12 public meetings this month, there is almost no chance the system will back down on fare increases. McCarty said the loss of motor vehicle excise tax funds due to Initiative 695 has gutted the ferry system's budget. As a result, WSF has slashed its dock construction programs and given up plans to continue replacing its aging boats. WSF administrators, McCarty said, are even considering selling some of the boats in its fleet and leasing ferries to cut costs.But even after they were presented with this bleak picture, the South Whidbey ferry riders complained. One woman said the fare increase will make it impossible for a single mother she commutes with to get to her job each morning. Several others pointed out that riders on the Clinton-Mukilteo route already pay for more of the run's actual cost than any other ferry riders in Western Washington, approximately 90 percent. Fare increases are intended to bring system-wide cost recovery to 80 percent system wide.Clinton's Terry Swanson told McCarty that it is time to give Clinton-Mukilteo riders a break. At the same time, he said, he understood WSF's financial woes, but noted that there is a limit to how much ferry riders will pay.Can you promise me our rate will never go above 100 percent?, he asked.Others at the meeting suggested that McCarty look for ways to cut expenses. Staff cuts were a favorite suggestion, especially in the ticket booths. One woman asked why WSF still uses ticket booths at all. Expressing disgust with his own agency, McCarty said WSF is the only major transit system he knows of that still relies on paper tickets.We are so far behind the curve it is beyond belief, he said.George Bacon, an islander who for years has promoted running his own private ferry between Coupeville and Camano Island, said WSF could also cut down the number of runs its ferries take if private companies can take a piece of the ferry pie. McCarty sincerely wished him luck.If other entities want to move in and provide service, they are welcome, he said.In addition to the fare increase, WSF will take away one of a few benefits available to commuters who purchase discount ticket books. Riders holding expired books purchased after May 12 will no longer get a refund on the old tickets. Langley's Ray Anchan characterized that move as petty.To give people 10 cents back on the dollar is cheap, cheap, cheap, he said.The WSF officials at the meeting collected written comments from ferry riders. Those comments will be considered by WSF's tariff policy committee as it crafts a fare increase proposal for the state transportation commission. The commission will give final approval to the increases. "

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