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Plan warns of cuts to state ferries

Taking a trip for business or pleasure on a Washington State ferry is going to cost riders more.

How much more, and when ferry fares might increase, is the subject of an exhaustive 105-page long-range planning report issued this month by the Department of Transportation.

Basically, the report boils down to two concepts.

In the first, the state keeps its current role as owner, operator and principal funder of ferry services in the Puget Sound region with a budgetary shortfall of roughly $3.5 billion.

Plan B proposes an alternative where the state takes responsibility for the core marine highway system while a locally-funded entity would take on a new marine transit system. The budget shortfall for the state is lower than Plan A, but still significant at

$1.3 billion.

State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said people need to get their minds around the second option.

“The state simply can’t afford the first alternative,” she said.

“Plan B is much closer to what we’ll end up with, with the state running a basic ferry service around Puget Sound and local governments running the rest,” said Haugen, a Camano Island Democrat and 10th District lawmaker.

Haugen added that service on the Clinton-Mukilteo route will stay about the same, no matter what happens.

However, while Plan A of the long-range planning draft report calls for two 144-car vessels in summer, then a single 144-car and one 124-car in the fall, winter and spring, Plan B calls for service cuts.

In the Plan B scenario, the route would be served by two 124-car ferries year around. Extra service on the weekends in the summer would be cut on the Clinton-Mukilteo route starting in 2013.

There will be other changes as well.

“The report details a variety of pricing and service options that will affect everyone who uses a ferry,” Haugen said. “We aren’t going to be able to run the system the same old way.”

A combination of increasing ridership and population, tight finances, aging vessels and outdated terminals is forcing state officials to seek strategies to pay for capital improvements to keep the system running smoothly over the next 20 years.

Ferry fares haven’t been keeping the system afloat since the state bought the ferries for $5 million in 1951. Ferry operations are 70 percent subsidized by those who ride the boats.

Since 2000, however, the cost of taking a ferry has increased between 37 and 122 percent.

The long-range report proposes a variety of ways for the state ferry system to close its budget gap, including reservations, fuel surcharges, commuter and small car discounts and increasing specific fares for both passengers and vehicles.

The system already has a seasonal 25 percent surcharge — 35 percent in the San Juans — that targets riders during peak times, mainly the summer tourist season.

Since ridership fluctuates wildly between winter and summer sailings, ferry officials are considering a reservation program to guarantee a spot onboard during the busy season. The current plan does not assume reservations will include a service charge.

“But in Canada, they do charge for reservations and it works,” Haugen noted. “And if someone makes a reservation but doesn’t show, they forfeit the fee.”

The state has already had some success with a reservation system that doesn’t tack on an extra fee to fares.

“The reservation process has worked on the Keystone run; merchants in Port Townsend love it,” Haugen said.

She said that reservations make sense on routes that attract recreational riders in the summer, such as the San Juans and the Edmonds-Kingston run.

“Tourists can choose to go a different time if a ferry is booked,” Haugen said.

Even so, she said the proposal may need refinements.

“We still need to make sure that South Whidbey commuters are protected, so there is a lot of work to be done,” she said.

Charging riders a fuel surcharge is another idea. Fares would be adjusted automatically to reflect any spike in the cost for fuel, allowing the state to pass on those increases to ferry users.

“I think a fuel surcharge would be a hard sell, but again, we need to look at all the options,” Haugen said.

The report said a small-car discount would allow more room on the car decks while encouraging people to downsize their lifestyles.

Adjusting fares between vehicles and passengers also would have a positive revenue impact, according to the report. For example, if car fares rose by 10 percent and passenger rates went up 5 percent, the report said overall revenue would increase 6 percent.

Haugen said everything is on the table and no decisions have been made. Though she’ll be in Olympia on Jan. 6, she plans to have her legislative assistant attend that day’s meeting at the Useless Bay Country Club. The meeting begins at

6 p.m.

“Those of us who represent ferry districts will be listening closely to what our constituents have to say,” Haugen said. “And while the report is a draft and nothing is set in stone, we have to get started now.”

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