Decision on ferry fares delayed nine days

"Ferry fares did not go up on Wednesday, but it appears to be only a matter of time until they do.The state Transportation Commission March 28 postponed a final vote on proposed 20 percent-plus ferry fare increases because the state Senate has not yet lifted spending caps that limits increases to the rate of inflation. But commission members left little doubt that they will impose the rate hike once the Senate acts.After all the work they have done, it would be hard to ignore the Tariff Policy Committee and say I can't support this, said commission member Chris Marr of Spokane.The commission, which sets ferry fares, conducted a public hearing Wednesday on the TPC proposal to raise most fares 20 percent beginning May 13.A round-trip passenger fare in the central sound area - Bremerton, Bainbridge Island and Kingston - would be $4.50, up from the present $3.70. Frequent-user books of 10 tickets would go from $26 to $31.50, while car-and-driver fare would go from $6.50 to $8 each way.Fares on the foot ferries to Bremerton and Vashon Island would go up to $6.50 round trip.The fare-increase proposals are a partial response to loss of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, which raised roughly $750 million annually from its value-based levy on vehicle registrations. The MVET was repealed first by voter passage of Initiative 695, then by legislative action, in 2000.Last week, the state Senate passed a transportation budget that would maintain ferry service at present levels. But that budget requires the ferry system to raise $30 million more from the fare box in the 2001-03 budget biennium.The proposed fare increase is projected to raise $10.4 million, but that is far from certain, because no one knows for certain how much the hike might affect ridership. The $10.4 million estimate assumes that ridership, which normally increases every year, will be flat.We don't really know how much money the fare increase will raise, because there is little precedent for substantial fare increases, said acting Washington State Ferries director Terry McCarthy. We will have to carefully monitor the the situation, he said. We won't really know if the $30 million is reachable until we try.Although commissioners said their limited role was to determine how - not whether - to raise $30 million, many of the public comments at the hearing argued that the ferries, as part of the highway system, should be free.That was probably the most frequent comment we heard, said TPC chair Alice Tawresey of Bainbridge Island. The TPC received a total of 3,260 comments on the fare proposal, she said.We respond by saying that highway users do pay operating costs when they buy their vehicle and the gas, but a lot of ferry users don't buy that. They really want a toll on Snoqualmie Pass, she said.Among those who acknowledged that ferry users must pay something, there was not a single objection to the overall increase of 20 percent. The criticism came from those whose increase would be larger - Bremerton foot-ferry riders and a delegation from the San Juan Islands.We could feel a breath of life in downtown Bremerton when we got the fast foot ferries and a 30-minute ride to downtown Seattle, said former state senator Lena Swanson of Bremerton. She advocated a larger across-the-board increase to allow foot-ferry and auto-ferry fares to cost the same.The idea of charging more for foot ferries was to take the target off the side of those boats, said Tawresey. Fares presently cover about 62 percent of the operating costs of auto ferries - an amount that would rise to 65 percent with the proposed increase - but only about 30 percent of foot-ferry costs.Kitsap County Commissioner Tim Botkin renewed his proposal for higher across-the board fares of $4.90 for both foot and auto boats, and a surcharge for Vashon and Kitsap County runs. Money from that surcharge would go into an account to expand foot-ferry service.The San Juan delegation was willing to accept the proposed 27 percent increase, but asked the commission not to adopt the TPC's so-called fare equity proposal, which would base fares on time or distance.The increases would make the area even more unaffordable for working-class families, they said, not only by raising the cost of travel, but also by raising the cost of groceries and everything else brought to the islands.Transportation Commission Chair Connie Niva said that the TPC could look at both Botkin's proposal and the San Juan proposal in this year's round of deliberations.The meeting was continued until April 6, by which time the Senate should have acted to lift the Initiative 601 spending limitation. If the Senate has not acted by then, the effective date of the increases will be delayed.Niva expressed sympathy with audience members upset about the funding crisis.Economic development creates the need for transportation, but revenue from economic development doesn't go to transportation, she said. Anyone who doesn't like the system should talk to their legislator, because you're preaching to the choir here. "

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