Plan for WSF reservation system is nearly ready for the light of day

A ferry leaves the Clinton Terminal for Mukilteo on Friday morning. A study that could determine the future of a proposed reservation system for ferry travelers will be released this week. - Brian Kelly / The Record
A ferry leaves the Clinton Terminal for Mukilteo on Friday morning. A study that could determine the future of a proposed reservation system for ferry travelers will be released this week.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

They say the best things in life are free.

And then, there are reservations for a spot on Washington ferries.

A Washington State Ferries study on the proposal to create a reservation queue for ferry sailings is due to the Legislature on Dec. 15. The report, called a “pre-design study,” would detail how reservations could be used throughout the ferry system.

Ferry officials have been meeting with a group of ferry users on the Edmonds-Kingston route since July to talk about how to set up a reservation system. Though the idea of reservations has been wildly unpopular on South Whidbey, Washington State Ferries made the idea a cornerstone of its long-range plan, and officials stress a reservation system would mean the state wouldn’t have to spend nearly $280 million for bigger boats and larger terminals.

That’s where the Kingston group — called the Edmonds-Kingston Partnership — has come in.

David Moseley, assistant secretary for Washington State Ferries, said the work of the partnership has laid the foundation for the pre-design study.

The group includes commuters, business interests, elected officials and representatives from chambers of commerce.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years, in terms of working with communities from an agency standpoint, and this is one of the highest-functioning citizen advisory groups that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. It’s been terrific,” Moseley said.

But they haven’t walked in lock step.

Not everyone has agreed that reservations are the way to go, Moseley said.

“I think it is fair to say there are several of the members who have been and maybe still are skeptical of the value of the reservation system,” he said.

Even so, the group has taken a comprehensive look at the issues raised by a reservation system, from how much deck space should be set aside for those with reservations and those without, to creating classes of priority passengers, to cancellation fees.

“Generally the consensus has been, we’re kind of going in the right direction,” Moseley said.

Many of the solutions reached by the advisory group are expected to find their way into the pre-design study.

At the start, the report is expected to include a change in philosophy for ferry reservations: Travelers would now pay for a slot, a switch from the earlier idea of having cost-free reservations.

The state’s long-range plan for the ferry system, released a year ago this month, said a free reservation system was crucial to keeping the size of ferry facilities in check.

“The most important operational strategy recommended in the draft plan is the deployment of a reservation system. A free, well-designed reservation system would allow WSF to operate with the smallest possible terminal facilities while maintaining a high level of service,” the report said.

Moseley said not everyone would have to pay up front.

That’s because the report will likely suggest creating two programs: one for general customers, and a “priority access” program for regular travelers such as commuters or commercial traffic.

General customers, which would include infrequent ferry travelers and tourists, would have to pay part of the fare while making a reservation.

Though earlier talks with the advisory group had centered on all of the fare being paid at the time of making a reservation, Moseley said it was more likely that just a portion of the full fare would be charged.

The state allows the ferry system to set up a fee for reservations, anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of the fare, Moseley said, and much of the talk has been about setting the prepay level at 60 percent.

Those in the priority access program would set up an on-line account for reservations, and maintain a minimum balance of perhaps $35. They would then be billed at the end of the month for the trips they had taken, or those travelers could pay with a credit card.

Commercial accounts would also have on-line accounts, and would probably pay a small annual fee and could also be billed at the end of the month.

Many of the critics of a reservation system for the Clinton-Mukilteo run have raised concerns about the amount of the deck that would be set aside for those with reservations.

The Kingston advisory group has suggested that during the peak commute time, up to 90 percent of the ferry would be saved for reservations. Travelers could save a spot up to 30 days before the sailing.

For the peak, non-commute time, 90 percent of the spaces on each ferry would be saved for customers with reservations. Travelers could make a reservation for those sailings up to six months in advance.

For off-peak travel, just half of the vessel would be saved for those with reservations. Travelers could make reservations up to six months in advance.

Travelers would also be able to change their reservations up to 30 minutes before departure time, Moseley said.

Cancellations would be free if made 48 hours before sailing; otherwise, the traveler would pay a fee.

The current line of thinking is that a cancellation fee will be needed to keep people from overbooking sailings or not showing up after they’ve made a reservation.

“A cancellation fee is something that’s still under some discussion,” Moseley said. “We certainly haven’t decided what the fee would be.”

Ferry officials have also said cancellation charges are necessary, in part because Washington State Ferries already pays more than a million dollars a year in credit-card fees. When a transaction is canceled, the state has to pay a fee.

State lawmakers will get the pre-design report this week.

If Olympia gives the green light for a pilot program, it’s expected to be started on the Keystone-Port Townsend run. The route already has a reservation system, but the software program that’s being used has been described as “fragile” and “ancient.”

Moseley said it could go one of three ways after the Legislature reviews the pre-design study.

“They could say this looks good, proceed to the next phase. Or they could say we have more questions, here is some more work we want you to do before we authorize you to move forward,” he said.

“Or they could say it doesn’t look good, let’s not move in this direction.”

“I anticipate there will be some discussions during the Legislative session,” Moseley added.

“The Legislature will make some decisions about how they would like us to proceed, and the pre-design study will have some recommendations in that regard.

“But obviously, it will be the decision of the Legislature on how to proceed and, in fact, whether to proceed.”

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