by ANN DASCH
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.
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.