Ferry fare rate hike on the horizon

Looks like the tide is rising for San Juan Islands ferry fares.

Looks like the tide is rising for San Juan Islands ferry fares.

Islanders are being asked to comment on a newly released draft ferry fare adjustment proposal developed by the Washington State Transportation Commission (WTC) in consultation with the Ferry Advisory Committee on Tariffs (FAC-T), an advisory group made up of ferry riders and members of local ferry advisory committees.

The proposal includes a state-wide fare increase of two and a half percent, and the following changes affecting San Juans routes: continued “fare equalization” through an additional two percent increase for interisland fares; discounted K-12 school group pricing; and elimination of day-of-week pricing, the early week discount and the passenger peak-season surcharge.

The Sounder asked county councilman Howie Rosenfeld, chairman of the San Juan Islands FAC, if it was possible to fight the fare increase.

“That would be tilting at windmills,” he quipped. “We didn’t get a fare increase last year. The ferries are underfunded. We’re lucky to have what we have, so a 2.5 percent fare increase, it’s the least that we were going to get. We’re going to have a battle to maintain (the service) we have in the face of more cuts.”

Rosenfeld said a 3.5 percent increase had also been discussed.

He also said the cost of ferry tickets will increase further through a mandated fuel surcharge that will go into effect by July, although details have not yet been determined.

“The last time fuel prices rose, the state just gave WSF more money, but that’s not going to happen this time,” he said. He said that the fuel surcharge could be mitigated by hedging, an agreement between WSF and a fuel company to purchase fuel for a certain time period at a locked-in rate that is higher than present rates but potentially lower than future rates.

“They’re reluctant to do that because it’s more money out of pocket right now,” said Rosenfeld.

While fares on some routes collect more than enough to pay for operations, he said the San Juans fares pay for less than 50 percent of the cost of operations.

“We have the lowest fare box recovery in the system,” he said. “We can make a pretty good case to not have the cuts imposed here because that’s our lifeline, our highway, but the runs down Sound are gonna get cut. We have to be grateful for what we have; we’re nursing boats along, most in the fleet are over 40 years old. We’re hoping we don’t have a major breakdown … that would be disastrous.”

Rosenfeld said fare equalization has been going on for a couple of years, and this would be the last in a series of hikes to make rates even with mainland runs.

Comments will be heard at a public meeting to be held on the interisland ferry on Thursday, Nov. 4, departing from Friday Harbor at 11:35 a.m., from Orcas at 12:25 p.m., from Shaw at 12:40 p.m. and from Lopez at 1:05 p.m. Comments can also be emailed to transc@wstc.wa.gov; mailed to P.O. Box 47308, Olympia, WA 98504, or phoned in to (360) 705-7070.

Rosenfeld said that although accepting public comment has become a standard part of the process, it may have a downside.

“It gives people the expectation that we can address some of their concerns,” he said. “It makes you cry, what some people have to go through to live here, to work, to get to medical and school needs. It touches your heart and you wish you could do something about it. There’s very little you can do that won’t make it worse for everyone else. What we’re ending up with is the ferry schedule that meets the needs of the most people … it’s a real tight schedule, we had to make sure that the pain was shared all around. All we can do make sure no one gets preference.”

Rosenfeld said the situation is only going to get worse, because ferry ridership is increasing.

“Same boats, same crew hours; with increased usage, it’s just going to get tighter,” he said. “We’re just going to have to endure this.”

When Rosenfeld first became chairman of the advisory committee, he felt the schedules were “cast in stone” by the time the committee saw them. So he initiated working with the WSF earlier in the ferry schedule draft process, and committee members were educated in all the parameters that must be taken into consideration when composing schedules.

“The bad news is that (WSF already) really does a good job maximizing the amount of service they can achieve. We didn’t really believe it, and in the last spring and summer schedules we achieved last minute changes that we thought would be really good. Unfortunately those minor changes … resulted in additional changes we didn’t anticipate and it turned out the schedule wasn’t as good. We now understand it a lot better,” Rosenfeld said.

The public comment period will conclude on Nov. 15 with a final public hearing in Seattle. Testimony on the proposal will be taken and the commission is expected to take action at the hearing, with its determinations to take effect on Jan. 1, 2011.

For more information about the fare proposal, visit the Transportation Commission’s Web site at: www.wstc.wa.gov