Feelings still run strong against ferry reservations

Washington State Ferries is moving forward with its study of a proposed reservation system on selected routes.

Whether a reservation system will come to the Clinton-Mukilteo route isn’t clear yet, said Clinton Ferry Advisory Committee chairman Dave Hoogerwerf on Thursday.

Speaking to a small crowd at Useless Bay Golf & Country Club, Hoogerwerf said he’s been reassured by state ferries division Assistant Secretary David Moseley that Clinton isn’t going to be affected.

“The ferry reservations system will be on a route-by-route basis, initially targeting tourist-heavy runs like the San Juans and Edmonds-Kingston,” Hoogerwerf said. “Moseley also has said, repeatedly, that any decision depends on how a ferry-served community feels about the plan.”

Judging by audience reaction, some still don’t like the idea at all.

“This is ridiculous. We can’t let that happen,” said Renee Corlis of Greenbank.

Corlis has been commuting for 12 years to her job as a nurse in Monroe. But several years ago, the long ferry lines and rising fare structure forced her to stay with her son in Everett during the week.

She and others had a few questions.

What happens if the ferry fills up before those with reservations arrive? Will it go half empty? Where will cars in Mukilteo go if they aren’t in the ferry’s reservation system? Will deposits be non-refundable or transferred to a later sailing? What if people’s plans change but they can’t reach anyone on a cell phone?

Hoogerwerf confessed that he doesn’t know the answers, and suspects that no one else does either.

“I think they plan to learn how it works by watching the San Juans and Edmonds experiment,” he said, noting the big difference between those routes and Clinton. “The thing is, people plan their whole day around the ferries in the San Juans, whereas we have a commuter-heavy 30-minute turnaround. It’s not going to work.”

The state ferry system faces serious challenges, including a $3.3 billion deficit over the next 22 years. Changes are needed because the ferry system has an aging fleet, increased overall ridership and worn-out terminals.

Ferry officials believe that reservations can be beneficial to customers by providing certainty and less time waiting for a ferry, reducing the impact of cars and making better use of terminals.

Hoogerwerf said that other towns aren’t as concerned about reservations, but the Clinton-Mukilteo route is 90 percent commuters, and that makes a huge difference.

“The input I’ve gotten since the long-range ferry plan was released is that South End folks are overwhelmingly negative toward reservations,” Hoogerwerf said.

Hoogerwerf noted that he and fellow commissioners Todd Bitts and Doug Brand have been trying to work closely with the ferry officials on a range of issues.

“Frankly, the relationship between officials and the public have been very poor over the years,” Hoogerwerf said. “Very little public input is accepted by the WSF.”

As an example, he noted the lack of discussion over the “super summer surcharge” proposed by the Washington State Transportation Commission last month.

If the state Legislature follows through, beginning in 2010, all ferries in the system would add a 10-percent summer surcharge on top of the current 25-percent peak summer rate, to take effect between the end of June until the day after Labor Day.

The state estimates the tariff will raise an additional $1.1 million by going after summer recreational riders.

But Hoogerwerf said he has real concerns about what the increase will mean for commercial traffic.

“This is one more tax on South End businesses on top of everything else,” he said.

Hoogerwerf said that his committee has to focus on getting the word out that Whidbey's ferry situation is unique, and plans to go to Vashon Island in September to a ferry meeting on the new surcharge. No meetings are scheduled on Whidbey Island.

"We need to educate our legislators about our very real concerns," he said.

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