by ANN DASCH
At the December 10, 2014 meeting of the Washington State Transportation Commission, Chair Anne Haley questioned whether ferry fares might be in danger of rising above the tipping point, where a small increase in fares causes households to make major life changes to dramatically reduce their ferry expenditures. Survey responses, Census data, and changing ridership and fare revenue patterns indicate that has already occurred for some ferry users:
- Ferry ridership dropped over 15% from its 1999 peak, while regional population grew. “An expanding pool of customers ride the system less frequently”
- Fare revenue from multi-ride fare media declined more than $5M between 2006 and 2010, from $48.5M to $43.1M.
- According to the 2014 FROG summer survey, which targeted regular riders, including commuters, “The percentage of riders saying WSF is a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value in the summer period has decreased significantly compared to 2012 (68% vs. 80%).” But 91% of respondents to the 2014 summer on-board recreational survey (target: out of state riders) felt WSF was a good or very good value.
- In Kitsap County, where more than half of all ferry trips start or end, Census data shows “[t]he share of households with children dropped 17.7% between 2000 and 2010, while the share with persons 65 and over jumped 25.5%.” King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties had much smaller shifts in household composition.
Which customers have reached the tipping point? Research points to high volume households – those that purchase multi-ride tickets, especially commuters. While single trip passengers and drivers (including seniors) are buying more tickets than they did in 2002, multi-ride ticket sales fell dramatically.
Fare policy changes over the last twenty years piled far more burdens on the backs of ferry commuters. Compare two households in Bremerton: a retired senior couple and a family of four, with one drive-on commuter and two school-age children. Both households earn the median income of $43,183. The retired couple drives on the ferry in their small car an average of 4 round trips per month using discounted tickets and pays $1038/year in fares, up 83% from $566 in 1998. (The retirees pay less if they spend winters elsewhere.) The working family walks on together once a month and one parent drives a standard size car on the ferry 260 round trips per year. They are charged $6096/year (up 123% from $2730 in 1998).* The retired couple spends 2.4% of their income on fares, while the family is charged over 14% of their earnings. If WSF raises fares 3% across the board, their annual household ferry expenses would increase $31 and $183, respectively, further widening the gap between their annual expenditures. If the family finally moves to the Eastside to avoid exorbitant tolls, they will likely be replaced by a household that pays far lower tolls.
How can Washington change course to retain and attract high volume customer households to increase ridership and revenue? We took two steps in 2013/14: restoring the half price discount for youth passengers, and giving vehicle fares slightly larger increases than passenger fares. The Ferry Fare Media Study further recommends: “WSF should reinstate discounted joint passes with transit agencies on routes with significant numbers of commuter customers.” WSF could also reinstate the deep discount (40% off) for multi-ride passenger tickets. It can lower the fare on the multi-ride vehicle pass from October through April, as it does for the single trip vehicle/driver tickets. WSF can give commuters more affordable options by improving transit connections so commuters can leave the car at home.** Other options include adding annual passenger passes, creating household accounts with a maximum annual expenditure, and/or increasing only vehicle fares.
Commuting families in ferry dependent communities were given too much of the burden for funding this portion of the WA transportation network, pushing them past the tipping point. Policies which work with these households’ price sensitivity will increase ferry fare revenue and reverse the downward spiral of falling ferry ridership and stagnant fare revenues. They can also reduce vehicle congestion and the costs that result from excess vehicle demand, both on ferries and on Eastside highways.
Ms. Dasch serves on the Anderson Island Citizens’ Advisory Board and is has been active on the Pierce Committee since 2008. Anderson Island is served by Pierce County Ferries, not Washington State Ferries, although PCF often uses WSF fares as a guideline for fare policy.
*Fares were not increased across the board in the last two decades due to changes in fare policy. Frequent passengers under age 65 got large increases. The smallest cumulative increases went to vehicles under 14’ long, and between 20’ and 22’ long. Youth passengers got large fare increases beginning in 1998, but WSF reversed that discrepancy by restoring youths’ 50% discount in Oct 2013, reducing costs for families traveling on the ferry. In each of the four quarters since the Oct 2013 fare restructuring, fare revenue increased beyond projections and exceeded previous record quarterly revenues, and ridership exceeded that of the same quarter, prior year. (Fare revenue data source: WSDOT’s Gray Notebook)
** “Half (49%) of ferry riders who have boarded the ferry as a vehicle driver or passenger say they would definitely (29%) or probably (20%) walk on the ferry more if transit service was reliable, coordinated, and easy to use on both sides of the ferry trip.” (source, p. 5)