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The Washington State Legislature has many goals for ferry pricing policy. Fares need to provide an adequate percentage of operation and maintenance expenses (about 66% in 2012). Fares should encourage desirable behaviors – reducing vehicle peak demand, increasing non-peak ridership, etc. Simplifying the fare structure is a high priority.

Ferry pricing policy changes enacted since 1998 worked against many state goals. Washington State Ferries (WSF) eliminated the joint monthly transit pass, which gave an additional 10% discount to walk-on commuters using other transit systems. WSF used to offer a “10 for the price of 6” ticket book and half-price fares for kids ages 6 to 11. Since 2003, youth and frequent passengers pay about 80% of the full fare. Meanwhile, WSF no longer charges 20’ to 22’ vehicles the oversize vehicle surcharge and their drivers are now eligible for senior, disabled, or commuter discounts. A “small car” now pays 20% less than the base vehicle fare; WSF is considering increasing that discount to 30% off. (Frequent and senior/disabled drivers receive additional discounts.) Adding the small car categories greatly increased the complexity of the fare structure. And today, some commuters find it cheaper to drive across on the ferry than to pay for parking, walk-on ferry fares, and transit.

The outcomes of those policy changes are striking when customer costs are compared for different user types. (All examples are round-trip fares for Central Sound routes in Summer 1997 and 2013, using multi-ride passes if applicable.) A 21’ truck driver paid $21.20 in the summer of ’97 (ineligible for discounts), but pays $21.14 today with a multi-ride pass. A walk-on family of four frequent riders (2 kids ages 6-11, and 2 non-senior adults) paid $7.70 in 1997, but is charged $24.80 today. These and other fares are shown below.

All examples are round-trip WSF fares for Central Sound routes in summer 1997 and 2013. Fares are not adjusted for inflation. 21’ truck was considered oversize (ineligible for discounts) until 2011. <14’ car discount also began in 2011. Walk- on family consists of two adults using a multi-ride pass and 2 children ages 6-11 using youth tickets. Vehicles assumed to use multi-ride discounts, if eligible.
All examples are round-trip WSF fares for Central Sound routes in summer 1997 and 2013. Fares are not adjusted for inflation. 21’ truck was considered oversize (ineligible for discounts) until 2011. <14’ car discount also began in 2011. Walk- on family consists of two adults using a multi-ride pass and 2 children ages 6-11 using youth tickets.Vehicles assumed to use multi-ride discounts, if eligible.

The Legislature’s demand management goals are not being met. WSF’s passenger ridership is declining faster than vehicle ridership. Winter ridership had bigger declines than summer ridership. Summer ridership is up on the San Juan Island/Anacortes route. Sound Transit recently replaced WSF as the transit agency with the second highest ridership in WA, after King County Metro. Since ridership is among the criteria for federal grants, lost riders mean lost grant revenue.

The Ferry Fare Media Study found that revenue from frequent user ticket categories has been in decline for years. WSF earned $5.4M more from frequent riders in 2006 than it did in 2010, even though fares rose several times in that period. WSDOT research and current data indicate that lower fares for frequent user households would increase ridership and revenue. By ignoring price sensitivity among frequent riders, WSF has made the ferry system LESS financially sustainable. Restoring deep discounts for kids and frequent passengers could achieve many goals.

Washington State Ferries and its Ferry Advisory Committee for Tariffs are discussing options for new ferry fares, to be implemented October 1, 2013. WSF will be proposing their recommendations to the Washington State Transportation Commission on May 22. Now is the time to speak up!

Ms. Dasch serves on the Anderson Island Citizens’ Advisory Board and its Ferry Sub-Committee. Anderson Island is served by Pierce County Ferries, not Washington State Ferries, although PCF tends to use WSF fares as a guideline. Part of Ms. Dasch’s article appeared as a letter to the Kitsap Sun.

37 Replies to “Washington State Ferries Considers Restoring Deep Passenger Discounts”

  1. I once talked with someone who claimed the definition of a “small” car was broad enough to include a Honda CRV!

    1. Since the limiting factor for the number of vehicles that can be accomodated both on the vessel and in the queues is the length of those vehicles, that should be the only thing that is measured for a fare discount. That is, assuming that the weight of a ‘small’ vehicle is not a significant consideration.

      1. Looking at the fares, I see there is also a surcharge for vehicles over 7’6″. I assume this is because it influences where a vehicle can be loaded on the boat.

      2. Raise the car fares, leave passenger fares where they are. Moving cars on a ferry should not be subsidized by the state (the ferry system is 25% of the WA transportation budget // roads are 75%… which leaves real transit where?)

        We can argue whether the ferries are “transit” at all. They certainly enable sprawl. People actually take a ferry to Sounder north to downtown on a daily basis. The subsidy on that ride is outrageous.

    2. The small car discount is 14′ or less. I doubt the CRV counts. A new Fiesta does, but the Focus does not, sadly. It pretty much needs to be a sub-compact.

      1. A first-generation CR-V, the smallest, is 14 ft 10 in long. It doesn’t qualify. Later generations are bigger.

  2. The “small car” including a Honda CRV is just one bizarre aspect about are ferry’s fare structure. Here are some others:

    – Because passengers are charged only in the westbound direction, while the the toll on the narrow’s bridge only charges in the westbound direction, both parts of WSDOT are set up to incentivize driving around to go west, while taking the ferry to go back East. Anecdotal experience on the Edmonds->Kingston ferry has suggested that wait times are typically longer when you go east, which, given WSDOT’s pricing incentives, is not all that surprising.

    – Walk on passengers pay an extra charge to bring a bike. However, there is no extra charge for a bike strapped to the roof or the back or a car.

    Also, in IMHO, the ratio of passenger fares to vehicle fares is way too high, considering that the passenger capacity of those boats is virtually unlimited, while the vehicle capacity limits the number of people that can ride it.

    1. Correction, the narrow’s bridge toll is only Eastbound. When traveling east, driving around becomes more expensive compared to traveling west, while the ferry becomes cheaper, provided at least one passenger is in the car, as passengers are only charged when heading west. Thus, the pricing system makes people more likely to choose driving around over the ferry when traveling west than when traveling east.

      1. The gap in your logic is that it also can take substantially longer to drive around (particularly for Bainbridge and Kingston) so the time and gas should add into the equation.

        I used to be a ferry commuter (walk on) on the Bainbridge Ferry. The only folks I knew who were tempted to drive around were folks on the Bremerton run and that was more of a time and especially a schedule thing.

      2. Right – for Bremerton the incentive is absolutely to drive around going west and take the ferry going east. I have also faced this tradeoff for going to the east side of the Olympic peninsula. I can’t really imagine many people seriously consider driving all the way around just to get to Bainbridge or Kingston. Those are much more obvious ferry choices.

      3. It’s not as crazy as you think. Try going from Edmonds to Silverdale—plug that into Google maps and you get a 1:33 vs 1:36 for ferry vs. driving around, respectively. I’m faced with this choice all the time and generally choose the ferry, despite the fact that it would typically take me less time and be cheaper to drive around.

      4. We make the trip from Bellevue to Hansville and more often than not drive around. If we have to wait one boat, which is almost always the case going back to Edmonds on a Sunday evening then it’s faster to drive around. In fact, unless you drive right on to a waiting boat driving is faster. Westbound it’s always more expensive and depending on the number of passengers, usually 2+ a lot more expensive to ferry. With the Narrow’s toll it’s about break even going east.

    2. Are vehicles charged in both directions? Last time I took a ferry I remember paying in Seattle and on bainbridge, although I don’t remember any fare being collected on vashon.

      1. Vashon has one-way fares. Bainbridge-Seattle has one way fares for passengers and both ways for vehicle/driver.

      2. Just to clarify, since the way I said it is at odds with how they say it in the Ferry Fare brochure. From the fare calculator page for Seattle-Bainbridge: “Passenger and vehicle/driver fares are collected at Seattle, while vehicle/driver only fares are collected at Bainbridge Island.”

        In the fare brochure, they call the passenger fare “round trip” and the vehicle fare “one-way”.

      3. No vehicle fare is collected on Vashon or the San Juans (Lummi is part of the San Juan archipelago). As there is no way on/off those islands other by ferry they collect a two way fare to make sure nobody gets stranded. Bainbridge and Whidbey both have bridges at the north end so they collect vehicle fares both ways.

      4. interisland passenger travel is free. auto traffic pays for each interisland trip. also all trips to anacortes are free. each route has its own fare collection quirks. port townsend to coupeville everybody pays both ways.

  3. How about putting some Car2Go stations at ferry terminals to disincentivize bringing your own car for those who need to disembark and then travel to someplace not served well by transit.

    1. Car2Go doesn’t have dedicated parking spaces or ‘stations’. Someone might park one of their cars near a ferry terminal, but you can bet it would be gone again very quickly.

      1. ZipCar, I have occasionally heard, has thought about having a vehicle stationed at the Bainbridge terminal. I think this is a case that would suit ZipCar well. I, for one, would love it for trips to Bainbridge or the peninsula from Seattle.

      2. I’m moving to Bainbridge next month, and I’ve been thinking about either signing up for Car2Go (yeah, I know, just missed the chance to do so for free) or reactivating my dormant ZipCar membership for just the purpose of being to ride the ferry as a walk-on then rent a car to get around on the Seattle side.

    2. Better still, would be a Car2Go network on the Kitsap peninsula that focused on longer-distance travel, rather than the short, urban travel the network focuses on in Seattle. Instead of home area being a contiguous area, the home area I envision would be a series of small islands, each consisting a few blocks next to the ferries and in the center of the largest towns. For instance, you would be able to drive a shared car one-way from Bainbridge Island to Poulsbo, Port Townsend, Sequim, or Port Angelas. But the rural areas in between these towns would be stopover only, as would the towns outskirts.

      For instance, at current rates, from Bainbridge Island, it would cost around $10 to get to Poulsbo, $20 to get to Port Townsend, or $30 to get to Port Angelas.

      The big sticking point, though, becomes availability. Ride the ferry expecting to take a Car2Go on the other end and you are screwed if one isn’t available there. So you bring your personal car on board (or rent one from the Seattle side) to be safe, which means even if a Car2Go is available, it sits there and doesn’t get used. Perhaps the best solution here might be to allow reservations up to 2-3 hours in advance (far enough back to rent a Zipcar and drive it on the ferry if no Car2Go is available on the other end) in exchange for a commitment to spend a minimum of $10-20 on the trip.

  4. How about raising car fares instead of discounting passenger fares? Might help close funding gaps.

    1. Lowering fares for the multi-ride pass and for youth passengers could also increase revenue to help close funding gaps. But you are right, raising car fares – especially in summer when vehicle demand exceeds supply – should help too. Both actions would help reduce vehicle congestion and wait times since some current drivers would switch to walking on. (WSTC surveys indicate that many riders already make that switch to walking on during the summer.)

  5. It is a delicate balance. I would not lower fares on the Mukilteo-Clinton, Edmonds-Kingston, or Seattle-Bainbridge during all seasons. Why? The boats are mostly packed as is. You will typically see waits for Edmonds-Kingston and Mukilteo-Clinton for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. If you lower fares, the route will be over capacity. Especially in the summer. When there are waits, there is the demand that people are willing to pay. The item I would strongly encourage WSF not to do is push the equilibrium point too far. It might be wise to consider peak surcharge in order to encourage some demand to choose less busy times to travel, but then that has to be weighed versus will people choose earlier hours or not travel.

    1. Are they ever at capacity for passengers though? I know vehicles can have a wait, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen passengers turned away.

  6. The CR-V is not a discount vehicle since it is about 15 feet long. Although both the Honda CR-Z hybrid (just over 13 feet long) and the older CR-X (just over 12 feet long) probably fit the bill. The list of small vehicles includes most of the current crop of hatchbacks like the Fit and Aveo, Scions, Minis, VW Beetles and Golfs, Jeep Cherokees, and of course Smart cars.

    I live near Southworth and in the past have been more of a transit rider, but the various transit agencies seem to be doing everything wrong to encourage me to be a passenger now.

    A round trip to Seattle by road takes 4 gallons gas and a $4 toll for $20 total. Taking the auto ferry comes out about the same, $8.20 each way and maybe a gallon of gas. The winner is actually taking the ferry over and driving back around which costs $8.20 for the ferry, no toll, and 2 gallons gas. Closer to $16 total. Plus parking! Which can range from free to $10 or so depending on where I’m heading.

    Walking on requires $5 parking at Southworth, one ferry passenger fare $6, two Metro trips at $2.25 each, for $15.50. Basically, if I can find free parking in Seattle then driving my car comes out about the same as taking transit. Disincentive one is that I trade the flexibility of my car for transit, but I don’t really save much money.

    The $5 to park at Southworth looms large in that calculation. I’ve never seen this lot more than a quarter full and its generally empty at night, but the ferry still charges $5 for parking or $3 on the weekend. It is possible to park for free, but not until 6 p.m. so it has be a late trip to Seattle to be able to do it. To make matters worse Kitsap Transit provides free parking 1.3 miles away and has a free shuttle from their free lot to the paid lot nearer the terminal, but only for commuters.

    The other big disincentive is that Kitsap Transit provides only commuter bus service to Southworth. They don’t have weekend, night, or even much mid-day service. Similar restrictions apply getting to the Bremerton Ferry from Port Orchard. There is a passenger ferry, but it has limited service for anyone but commuters. It would be nice to be able to use either the Southworth or Bremerton ferry, but it’s impossible with the state of Kitsap Transit.

    However, I must say RapidRide makes a big difference on the Seattle side. Even with its implementation problems the idea that a bus will be along within 15 minutes after getting off the ferry minimizes the likelihood of a long wait. And, even with reduced service at night it’s still an improvement on the old route 54 schedule getting back to the ferry.

    1. And as someone else pointed out above, this is just for me. If I add a passenger then the transit option goes up much faster than the other options. Driving around is substantially the same cost as is catching a ferry to Seattle and driving around back. The ferry round trip goes up by $6/passenger. Transit goes up by a whopping $10.50 per additional rider.

    2. Weekdays, the Port Orchard-Bremerton foot ferry has half-hourly headways from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., so I wouldn’t call it limited service. None of Kitsap Transit’s bus routes have that level of frequency throughout the whole day.

  7. If WSF ever does get out of the business of disincentivizing walk-on passengers (and I presume it could happen with new leadership on the Senate Transportation Committee), and walk-on lines start forming, WSF would be well-advised to follow the lead of King County Ferries, and have a higher cash fare than ORCA fare for walk-ons. This can be done since fares are set line-by-line, and the ORCA infrastructure is already in place on the relevant lines.

    I guess my one trepidation with incentivizing walk-ons is that if car traffic drops (unlikely), then runs could be cut, which would be bad for walk-ons and everyone else.

    1. Like you, I doubt that vehicular traffic would drop off that much. In the short run, perhaps there would be some extra space but as the wait time declines some folks who currently drive around to save time would choose to use the ferries instead. Besides, the excess demand for vehicle space is so great that WSF plans to spend millions on a reservation system. Those expenditures might not be necessary if the fare policy balances demand. And since WSF removed the disincentive to driving a 20′-22′ vehicle across, it seems crazy to maintain disincentives to taking additional passenger trips.

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