WSF REPORT: Few reservations forseen at Clinton

Reservations for travelers on the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry route will be limited to commercial traffic, according to a pre-design study on a reservation system conducted by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The much-anticipated analysis was sent to the Legislature on Tuesday, and made available to the public on Wednesday. The Legislature will eventually decide whether to approve a reservation system, modify the approach outlined in the study, or reject the proposal.

South End spared

The draft report was good news for South Whidbey.

A reservation system for the Clinton-Mukilteo run has been bitterly opposed by many South End residents. Critics have said it could hurt tourism and the ability of those who need to commute off-island for work. Opponents have also said return trips to Whidbey Island from the mainland are sometimes difficult to predict due to traffic and other factors, so making reservations would be especially problematic.

Officials from Washington State Ferries, however, say reservations are needed because they will help level out demand on the ferry system during peak travel times, which will lessen the need to build larger terminals and more vessels.

The study recommends that most of the ferry terminals in the Washington State Ferry system adopt a reservation program that covers all travelers. Those terminals include Anacortes, Bainbridge, Bremerton, Edmonds, Friday Harbor, Keystone, Kingston, Lopez Island, Orcas Island, Port Townsend, Seattle, Shaw and Sidney.

Terminals that would have reservations for commercial traffic include Clinton, Mukilteo, Point Defiance, Southworth, Tahlequah and Vashon Island.

Local officials were happy that South Whidbey travelers will not face a reservation system in their immediate future.

“I was really glad to see that the Clinton-Mukilteo run was not a good candidate for reservations,” said Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.

“Their recommendation makes sense for our community,” she said.

The report suggests creating a reservation system in steps, beginning in May. The reservation program would be started on the Keystone-Port Townsend run, and would later be expanded to commercial traffic on other routes and, eventually, would include all travelers on most routes.

“I think that their report certainly shows an awful lot of thought about how a reservation system would be implemented on a phased-in type of procedure,” said state Rep. Barbara Bailey of Oak Harbor.

“It also demonstrates to me that there’s a lot of consideration being provided to those communities that had specific kinds of challenges when it comes to a reservation system,” she said.

All but three

The draft report says reservations can be made to work at 17 of 20 WSF terminals. The three left off the list are Fauntleroy, Tahlequah and Vashon Island.

The report also noted, however, that terminal capacity at Mukilteo comes with a question mark because part of the holding area is on the former site of the Buzz Inn and the lease only runs for five years.

“Without a long-term solution at Mukilteo, it may not be possible to effectively support reservations on this route,” the report says.

The size of terminals is important because the analysis suggests that the reservation system under consideration by WSF works best if there is space in vehicle-holding areas for at least 120 percent to 150 percent of the capacity of the ferry on the route, or there is more than an hour between sailings.

A staggered start

The ferry system will roll out the reservation system in phases, according to the draft report.

The staggered start on individual routes may include offering reservations to certain customer groups, such as commercial travelers. The gradual approach may include using reservations just on the weekends, or by setting aside a smaller percentage of deck space for reservations during the rollout.

If approved by the Legislature, work to create the reservation system would ramp up early next year.

The first phase would run from May 2010 through June 2011, and Washington State Ferries would buy an industry-standard reservation system and combine it with the state ferries’ Wave2Go ticketing system and existing information technology infrastructure.

An advisory group would be set up on the Keystone-Port Townsend run to talk about how to launch the reservation system on the route.

Modifications would be made at ferry terminals, and the reservation system would be rolled out in spring 2011 on the Keystone-Port Townsend route, on international routes and, for commercial traffic, on the San Juans run.

During the second phase of the rollout, from July 2011 through June 2014, the reservation system would be fully implemented on the Anacortes-San Juan Island routes. It would also be extended for commercial traffic throughout the entire ferry system.

In the third phase, from July 2015 through June 2018, the reservation system would be expanded to include Central Sound commuter-oriented routes — Edmonds-Kingston, Seattle-Bainbridge and Seattle-Bremerton — starting with a three- to six-month test on one of the routes.

The report says the reservation program would cost $24.5 million. That’s higher than the earlier estimate of $18 million that is in WSF’s long-range plan for the ferry system.

Officials note, however, that the $24.5 million figure includes the cost of the reservation system itself — which carries an $11.6 million price tag — but also $14.3 million for an “intelligent transportation system” communication program of message signs, highway radio advisories and Web cameras.

Premium accounts coming

As expected, the report suggests creating premier accounts for commuters and frequent ferry riders.

The draft report gives added detail to such a program. It says any ferry customer would be able to get a premier account, which would be set up online by using a credit card or by maintaining an account with a suggested minimum dollar amount.

Premier customers would not have to pay in advance for ferry reservations, but would be charged once they sail. They would also be able to make multiple reservations at once, and would be given more flexibility than other ferry customers to make changes to their reservations, including cancellations.

A portion of the ferry deck that is set aside for reservations would also be available only to premier customers, up to 24 hours before the sailing.

The amount of reserved deck space set aside for premier customers would vary by route, but the report says the majority of space on commute sailings would be set aside for premier customers.

Premier customers could be kicked out of the program, however, for excessive amounts of cancellations or changes to their reservations.

A program would also be set up for commercial users of the ferry system. Commercial customers would pay a small annual fee, and be billed at the end of the month for the number of trips taken.

Commercial-account holders who use the ferries frequently would get guaranteed reservations at their preferred sailing time, as long as a reservation was made an hour or more in advance of sailing.

Commercial travelers would not need to make a deposit to get a reservation, and would be able to make multiple reservations for multiple vehicles.

On commute and peak sailings, roughly 10 percent of the deck space would be set aside for commercial traffic. More space, about 15 percent, would be set aside for commercial traffic during non-peak sailings.

The report suggests setting aside up to 90 percent of ferry deck space for reservations during peak and commute periods, with 50 percent of the space set aside for off-peak times.

People who are not enrolled in a premier or commercial program will be able to make reservations, and travelers will still be able to drive up to a terminal and catch a sailing on a first-come, first-served basis.

Travelers not enrolled in a priority program will be charged for the full fare when they make their reservation.

The report says travelers with reservations will need to show up at least 15 minutes before their sailing. Those who come late will be put in the stand-by line.

Travelers who have made a reservation and don’t show up, and don’t contact the ferry system, will be considered a “no-show” after 24 hours and will be charged the full fare.

The report estimates that as many as 47,000 travelers might sign up for priority programs if the reservation system is used on every ferry route, and as many as 6.9 million reservations might be made each year.

The full reservation system would not be used on the Clinton-Mukilteo run or on South Sound routes, though the report says travelers on those routes would still see benefits from the program because of the improved communication system for travelers.

Clinton off the list

“I think it pretty much aligns with what we’ve been saying all along, that the Clinton-Mukilteo run is not a very good candidate for reservations,” said Dave Hoogerwerf of the Clinton Ferry Advisory Committee.

“It seems to me that they’ve done a pretty good job of separating out the hoopla of a reservation system ... and came down to the analysis that all runs are not created equal,” he added. “Some really need this reservation system and some runs don’t. And I think they’ve recognized that.”

Members of the ferry system’s ferry advisory committees met in Seattle Thursday and unanimously voted to support the proposal, Hoogerwerf said.

But the meeting began with a slight scare.

David Moseley, assistant secretary for Washington State Ferries, started the meeting with a dramatic announcement: The number-one priority for the rollout of the reservation system was the launch of the program on the Clinton route.

All eyes turned to Hoogerwerf as Moseley stared at him from across the table.

Hoogerwerf had already seen the study, though.

“I said, ‘I read it; you can’t BS me!’” Hoogerwerf recalled, as the meeting erupted in laughter.

The final report is expected to be delivered to the House and Senate transportation committees by Jan. 11.

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