Pay more to ride at prime time? tPeak-time prices still on the table in WSF’s long-range plan

Forget about the spread sheets. The true value of any public administrator may be an ability to read between the lines.

And the lineup of “operational strategies” now under consideration as part of the state ferry system’s long-range plan could well shape the future of ferry service in the San Juans, according to San Juan County Administrator Pete Rose.

Rose, appointed by the County Council late last year to participate on the Local Agency Review Team created by Washington State Ferries, last week had mix reviews for the council following the group’s latest meeting in March.

Rose said strategies such as peak-time pricing or accepting longer wait-times between boats are likely to be the first line of defense for Washington State Ferries once capacity outstrips demand during the course of the long-range plan’s 22 year target period. Though money has been allocated for construction of four new boats, he believes WSF will be hard-pressed to find money for more given that state officials, Gov. Christine Gregoire included, are pushing to have the “smartest, leanest, meanest” ferry system possible.

Those superlatives, said Rose, a public administrator for more than 20 years, translate into having the “smallest” system that the state can buy. In addition, he said, key players in state transportation circles would like to see gas-tax money that goes to WSF, roughly 25 percent of its annual operating budget, shifted toward highway projects that are concrete.

“We have to watch what those operational strategies are,” he said. “I think that will be the raw meat for ferry service in the San Juans.”

In 2005/06, the state ferry system’s budget totaled about $620 million; roughly $376 million for operations and $244 for the capital account. However, an additional $51 million was needed to offset an increase in fuel costs. The agency operates nearly 500 sailings each day systemwide. A 62 percent increase systemwide in ticket prices over the past seven years has allowed WSF to recoup roughly 76 percent of its operating expenses despite the loss of roughly three million vehicles and and passengers over the same time period.

A final draft of WSF’s long-range plan is expected in October. It’s shape may well depend on recommendations from the state Transportation Commission, which is conducting a survey of riders, and a legislative panel of elected official from the state Senate and House which is at work on financing options.

Even though pricing strategies and service standards remain under debate, Rose said that the fact WSF officials appear to recognize that a “one-size-fits-all” package won’t work systemwide is encouraging. However, he noted that many of his Review Team colleagues represent communities like Bremerton, Edmonds and Mukilteo, where populations are large, transit options exist and ferry service is more commuter-based.

“They certainly don’t understand how ferry service in the San Juans works,” he said. “It’s a drum I’m beating constantly down there.”