Transportation budget includes $18 million for ferry reservation system

  • Sun Mar 29th, 2009 1:00am
  • News

There’s $18 million in the Senate transportation budget to set up a pilot project for a ferry reservation system, but it can’t be tapped for at least a year.

And it can’t be touched at all until ferry officials come up with a more detailed proposal, state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen said Friday.

Additionally, a reservation system won’t happen if a majority of the people directly affected by such a system don’t like it, vowed Haugen, a 10th District Democrat from Camano Island and chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Earlier estimates for a ferry reservation system have ranged from $28 million to $45 million.

“It’s a whole lot less than they asked for,” Haugen said of the Senate appropriation. “We gave them enough money to start looking at it.”

But she added: “There has to be no question about how everyone feels before a reservation system is put in on any run. There would have to be a huge buy-in by the community. That’s the way I feel.”

Widespread opposition to a reservation system on the Clinton-Mukilteo route has swelled since the idea surfaced late last year.

State planners have pointed to reservations as a vital piece of the plan that would solve the problems facing the ferry system, which include a $3.3 billion deficit over the next 22 years, an aging fleet, increased ridership and worn-out terminals.

Reservations have been proposed during peak travel periods, and planners have said 90 percent of ferry capacity during those sailings may be set aside for reservations.

State ferry planners have said the Clinton-Mukilteo route would be next in the “logical progression” of expanding the reservation system.

Riders would need to pay for reservations in advance, and previous studies on the idea have suggested the installation of an automatic verification system that would read license plate numbers with cameras to check if drivers in ferry queues have reservations. A database of license plates would be maintained, and the state has considered sharing revenues from reservations with the vendor that creates the system so operating costs could be reduced.

The automatic system could lead to savings because toll-booth workers would no longer be needed. The state needs to find a solution, however, to check vehicles for unclaimed passengers, as passenger fares provide millions in revenues and the ferry system is worried about drivers who don’t pay for passengers when they make reservations.

The state has also considered raising fares for travelers who make reservations during the busiest travel periods. And for drivers showing up for a ferry without reservations, the state has also considered imposing an additional premium fee, “in order to strongly encourage riders to make a reservation.”

Haugen said earlier estimates of the cost of a reservation system were unrealistic.

“The price they came up with before is too high,” Haugen said. “There’s no way we’re going to do that.”

She said the $18 million for the reservation system is a place-holder in the transportation budget for the next two years. It couldn’t be drawn upon until an acceptable preliminary proposal is submitted by ferry officials.

And no action would be taken on the issue until next year’s legislative session. The transportation budget must still be approved by the House.

“I think the House is feeling the same,” Haugen said. “There are some things we want to find out.”

Haugen said the reservation systems on the Keystone-Port Townsend and Anacortes-Sidney, British Columbia runs will remain in place.

A new 64-car ferry for the Keystone-Port Townsend run has been ordered and will be delivered next year, and money for three similar vessels is included in the Senate transportation budget.

Haugen estimates that if Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland is awarded work on the additional ferries, $30 million would be pumped into the South End community, along with new jobs.

Haugen said the issue of reservations is complex, and that it could be beneficial for specific runs at specific times, especially to merchants and suppliers moving goods and services across the water during non-commute hours.

“That’s the kind of thing that may have merit and should be looked at,” Haugen said. “It kind of makes sense.”

“Every run doesn’t feel the same when it comes to reservations,” she added.