Ferry fares could jump in May

"The state Transportation Commission went forward with a plan Monday that is built on a foundation of ifs.They decided to file a proposal which would give themselves the authority to raise ferry tolls - a responsibility it had before Initiative 695 gave that power to the people. The proposals would require amending four parts of the Washington Administrative Code.The commissioners hope to increase fares May 23, instead of the Jan. 1, 2001 date previously discussed. According to Washington State Ferries deputy director Terry McCarthy, if fares are increased sooner, the $30 million needed to prevent more ferry cuts can be generated with smaller fare hikes.But the lofty proposal is built on a foundation of ifs. The commissioners acknowledged that they first need Tacoma Democrat Rep. Ruth Fisher's bill to pass with a supermajority vote - an uphill battle in the evenly split House and the 27-22 Democrat-controlled Senate. Fisher's proposal, House Bill 2866, creates a ferry task force, defines ferry fares as a proprietary service of government and as such makes them exempt from the I-695 ban on fee increases without voter approval. Fisher's bill also exempts ferry fares from the Initiative 601 spending cap.If it or a similar bill passes, we would be in a position to consider an early fare increase that could be used to help the 2001-2003 anticipated funding shortfall, wrote McCarthy in a position paper for the Transportation Commission.We've realized it's so advantageous to get this (fare increase process) started that we're really pushing on the schedule, McCarthy said. It generates the same amount of money but it keeps the fare increase percentage down.He estimated that two 40 percent fare increases - implemented Jan. 1, 2001 and Jan. 1, 2002 - would raise the same amount of money as a 25 percent fare increase enacted in May, plus two additional 15 percent increases in the next two years. After that, McCarthy said, toll increases could be made based on inflation and then we'd be in a position to buy back service.Ferry officials, transportation commissioners and Tariff Policy Committee members have all balked at the 40 percent fare hike that is unprecedented in Washington State Ferries' history. They are afraid it would diminish ridership. Transportation Commission chairwoman Connie Niva said she liked the sooner, smaller fare hike plan. She plans to file the WAC change request today."

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