Hefty ferry fare hike proposed

"Saying ferry users must be a visible part of the solution to the state's transportation-funding crisis, the Tariff Policy Committee of the state's Transportation Commission is recommending substantial fare increases over the next six years.The panel recommends boosting the round-trip passenger fare on the Bainbridge, Bremerton and Kingston runs from the present $3.70 to $6.50 by 2006, and the car-and-driver fare from the current $6.50 to $12. During the peak summer season, the car-and-driver fare would go from the present $8.25 to $15.The price of a ten-ride passenger coupon book would go from the present $26 to $46.25 under the proposal.The premise underlying the recommendations is that users should pay 80 percent of ferry operating costs by 2007, up from the present 65 percent.Users should pay a larger part of the operations costs of the ferry system to show legislators and taxpayers that ferry riders are part of the solution to the problem caused by the Legislature enacting the $30 MVET, said Tariff Policy Committee chair Alice Tawresey of Bainbridge Island in a memorandum she wrote to the state Transportation Commission explaining the recommended increases.Repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, first by the voters via Initiative 695 and then by the Legislature after the ballot measure was found unconstitutional, knocked a $750 million hole in the annual state budget.Because of the way the Legislature had earmarked MVET revenue, the repeal hit transportation particularly hard, costing the ferry system some $125 million per year.The committee recommended a far more substantial increase in passenger-only ferry fares between Bremerton and Seattle, because the current fares recover only 30 percent of operating costs. The proposed increases would bring that figure up to 70 percent.While 30 percent farebox recovery is consistent with transit-system operations, the committee noted that ferries are paid for with state rather than local funds. Legislators and taxpayers statewide look at a 30 percent farebox recovery as a problem, Tawresey wrote in her memorandum, adding that the Washington State Ferry System has proposed dropping passenger-only service if its operational budget is not increased substantially.The state's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation included the Tariff Policy Committee's recommendations in the report it submitted this week to Gov. Gary Locke that urged a multi-billion dollar package of transportation improvements.The report will also go to the Legislature, which would have to take action to implement the recommendations.Area legislators agreed that ferry users would have to loosen up their wallets, but were not all ready to endorse the increases Tawresey and her committee recommended.I think it's a little high, said Rep. Beverly Woods, R-23rd District. Unless you're going to increase the level of service, I'm not in favor of huge fare increases.Woods opposed substantial ferry fare increases during the last legislative session, arguing that it was unfair to put the whole burden of I-695 on ferry commuters.But that's not an accurate picture of the situation, Tawresey said.The loss of MVET revenue put a burden on transportation revenues throughout the state, she said. Road users are suffering because there are no capital dollars to build any new roads.Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-23rd District, noted that the Blue Ribbon Commission report calls for shifting more of the burden of building and maintaining transportation systems to users, rather than by taxpayers in general, and said ferry users were not exempt from that logic.We're asking users of transportation systems statewide to participate in financing of the systems, Rockefeller said. That applies to ferry service as well.Tawresey said that arguably, highway users pay 100 per cent of the operational costs.They buy the vehicle, the gas and the insurance, she said, and the state pays for the road.The Blue Ribbon Commission's report suggested a variety of revenue-raising measures, many of which are tied to highway use. Among the suggestions are an increase in the gasoline tax, imposing the state sales tax on the commodity price of gasoline - that portion of the price that does not consist of taxes - weight-based vehicle excise taxes and per-mile use charges.While the Blue Ribbon Commission calls for greater efficiencies, it projects that efficiencies can account for only about one-third of the $150 billion the state will need to spend on transportation over the next 20 years. Existing revenue sources will raise roughly $55 billion, the report says, but the remaining $45 to $50 billion will have to come from new revenue.State Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-23rd District, said the close division in the Legislature will make any major work on transportation difficult.But the fact that everybody agrees the situation is urgent may make it possible to get something done.Tawresey thinks the fare increases her committee has proposed will likely be implemented, at least initially.She said the Legislature's role in ferry fare increases is limited to voting on whether to waive the revenue limitations on Initiative 601. She said the Legislature has no incentive to oppose fare increases unless there is substantial public opposition.I hope the ferry riders will support these increases, she said. My fear is that if they don't, we could be looking at massive cuts in ferry service as a legislative response.I hope that ferry riders understand that free lunch is a myth. "

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