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)

94 Replies to “WSF Reaches the Fare Tipping Point”

  1. Ann;

    Let me begin by stating I sincerely appreciate you using my image as intended. I’ve put the MV Tokitae reflecting image on Fine Art America for those who’d like a print.

    Gratitude earned & given, I need to note a lot of us transit advocates get blown off when we say there is a point where rising transit fares reach a point of shrinking returns. The data you present here shows how I-695 and the resulting defunding of the state ferry system did stop our own fast ferry fiasco & therefore some sprawl on the Kitsap Peninsula – but what a damn mess Eymanism left behind. Working families are just totally hammered by fares – while retirees with all those octogenarians in the state legislature with younger staff slaving away with no real voice get discounts. The state ferry system is still underfunded and has no reserve fleet to call upon – and we all saw how that played out in regards to the Steel Electric ferry fiasco. Voters and ferry users can’t vote on their own fare system – a fare system set in back channels and cubicles with no meaningful public input.

    1. “no meaningful public input” – Actually, it is possible to give input on fares – I’ve been doing so for about three years – but it isn’t easy to influence policy. The Ferry Advisory Committee – Tariff meetings are open to the public and give citizens the opportunity to speak briefly. (But they are not well publicized.) The Transportation Commission also takes public comment – that’s where I started – many of them do listen and they also take email input.

      The fare review process is currently underway, with the Transportation Commission scheduled to make its final decision at its July 2015 meeting in Seattle.

      1. There were many years where the Ferry Advisory Committees work and recommendations were deliberately ignored, by order of Ms. Gregoire was what I heard.

        Ferry riders pay far more for their fares than any other highway toll or mass transit ride (such as light rail or buses).

        I read a recent article that stated that WSF ferries moved 22 million passengers in 2013, and SeaTac airport moved 34 million.

        Something is seriously lopsided in the State of Washington where our marine highways are pathetically underfunded. Ferries are the only way for many rural communities to get to Interstate Highways — why aren’t ferries federally funded?

        Adequate mobility is a government mandate, and rural areas served by ferries do not have adequate, nor affordable, mobility.

        The new 144-car ferry is a design that has an entire passenger deck — that remains closed 24/7 because WSF claims they don’t have enough personnel to staff the deck. The actual reason is there is no reason to hire people to staff that huge deck – there aren’t enough passengers to bother with.

        We need 200-vehicle vessels.

        And we need more accountability from WSF and the Governor.

      2. Where are the Ferry Advisory Committee meeting minutes posted for each group? I can find none.

        These meeting minutes are important, and should be easily available to the public, on the WSF website.

  2. I’ve done a little research on the extent of multi-ride discounts in transit systems around the US. I focused on the monthly (or 28/30/31 day) pass breakeven rate vs. a single trip fare. For reference, the breakeven on the Puget Pass products is 36x (18 round trips). Most transit systems have breakevens of 32-36x, with some as high as 57x (Los Angeles) and as low as ~21x (Shore Line East commuter railroad in CT). LA’s pass is so expensive that not even a regular commuter would save money.

    I just pulled up the Bainbridge-Seattle passenger fares. $103.20 is the monthly pass price and the single round-trip is $8.00. Therefore the multiple for WSF (at least on that route) is 25.8 (13 round trips), which would place it among the lower-priced monthly pass products in the U.S. Likewise, the 10-ride card is $64.50, which works out to a breakeven of 8.05 trips. Most transit agencies sell 10-trip products for ~9x base fare, and many sell them for 10x with the only benefit being convenience.

    I don’t see pricing being that unfair to ferry commuters. On a multiples-basis, it is relatively low. The car & driver multi-ride card is a really good deal during peak season. Keep in mind that 50% discounted senior-citizen transit fares are required by federal law (not sure if this applies to ferries). It is entirely possible that the decline in multi-ride fare revenue is the result of the aging of the most ferry-dependent populations, who don’t commute to work as much and get substantial discounts.

    1. Because L.A. has no transfer mechanism aside from day and monthly passes, and because the vast majority of trips will require a connection, the pass multiplier there is really 28.5x (half of your calculation).

      1. Thanks for the heads up, I didn’t realize that. Even so, at $100/month it is among the most expensive local transit passes in the US.

      2. It went up just recently.

        And ours will be $99 less than five weeks from now.

        Yes, it’s too much.

      3. Metro LA fares went up recently but now they include free transfers to complete a one-way trip within 2 hours. The monthly pass prices there are just too high.

      4. Hmmm…

        Considering that LA’s transit frequency and base-price reach are almost infinitely better than ours, and given that our monthly pass price is about to rise to just $1 shy of $100…

        What does that say about our fare value?

      5. The state did not make Metro double the off-peak fare while the Boonies-to-Tunnel premium services rose only 50%.

        The state does not force Metro to retain fare categories that were broken twenty years ago, to the great disadvantage of the riders least likely to have employer-subsidized passes.

        The state does not for Metro to thoughtlessly add quarters across the board every three months, rather than setting sustainable local/express/long-distance prices that accurately reflect the value to the customer, and that will remain sustainable for the forseeable future.

        You cannot blame the state for the fact that it is about to cost $100/month to crawl across this town. No dice, Mike.

      6. …And keeping this diversion relevant, the state did not force Metro to set an industry-high 36x break-even point, further penalizing their most reliable customers (especially those without employer subsidies).

      7. 36x breakeven is on the high side but not the highest – here are the highest breakevens that I’ve seen (some systems have transfer fees so breakeven would be lower for multi-vehicle trips):

        Los Angeles (30-day): $100 / $1.75 = 57.1x
        NYC MTA (30-day): $112 / $2.50 = 44.8 (will be changing to $116.50 / $2.75 = 42.4x)
        Chicago CTA (30-day): $100 / $2.25 = 44.4x
        SEPTA (monthly TransPass): $91 / $2.25 = 40.4x
        Tri-Met (monthly): $100 / $2.50 = 40x
        MTA Maryland – Baltimore (monthly): $64 / $1.60 = 40x (still cheap though)
        Pittsburgh (monthly): $97.50 / $2.50 = 39x
        MARTA (30-day): $95 / $2.50 = 38x
        Cleveland (monthly): $85 / $2.25 = 37.8x

        Commuter rail passes tend to have lower breakevens than urban local transi passes. IMO 36x is the highest you should go except maybe in places like NYC where you have 24/7 (unless a snowstorm) service.

      8. Hmm… Interesting.

        I do think you need to take into account transfer surcharges in your calculation. For example, SEPTA (another whatever-the-opposite-is-of-a-shining-beacon of American transit) has a transfer scheme simultaneously so complicated and so stupid that in addition to bringing the multiplier down a ways, it encourages purchasing a monthly pass just to avoid the daily forehead-slapping.

        I think similar issues will affect your multiplier in Pittsburgh and Chicago. The real surprise on the list is Portland, which of course now has its 1-day pass set at 2x the single-trip fare. That makes it the rare city that virtually demands you be in town the entire month, commute five days every week, and use TriMet at least a couple of weekends for the monthly pass to be a guaranteed value.

        In short, I agree with your final statement. 36x is already getting too high for a system saddled with such mediocrity outside of the peak that a good portion of your customer base will use it only twice daily on weekdays. The savings must be apparent even if you have a sick day or two.

        The kind of revenue stability and reliable political support that allow an agency to improve its offerings — and to finally move past being “commute-centric” — benefit from a broad “buy-in” from the general citizenry. The MBTA can offer the kind of service that Seattle finds unimaginable because half the city owns a ($75) monthly pass. The pass with the lowest fare and lowest multiplier thus ironically becomes the most useful for all purposes and at all hours. And the asinine “war on cars” and “why can’t bus riders pay 100% farebox?” debates we have endlessly around here don’t exist, because nearly everyone is a transit rider. This is arguably as important an outcome as the farebox-speedup that broad monthly-pass penetration encourages.

    2. The adult passenger fare is roughly 29% of the non-peak 14 to 22′ vehicle/driver fare. Perhaps it was originally set so high because the ferry is a tourist attraction, as well as transit. $8 for a boat ride on a sunny summer day is cheap – way cheaper than a trip up the Space Needle. The multi-ride and monthly passes are for those who use the ferries as transit. The discounts may be deeper than on some other transit systems (that don’t have a lot of tourists) – but they aren’t as deep as they used to be (prior to 1998).

      1. Not sure. The walk-on fares used to be much cheaper. Considering the cost of operating the ferries $4 each way isn’t too bad though the sting would be much less if WSF took other agencies transfers as part of the fare. I also hate the $1 bike surcharge.

      2. @Chris – If you buy a 10-ride ticket or a monthly pass there is no bicycle surcharge (bicyclists can use the same passes that foot passengers use). You have up to three months to use the rides on a 10-ride ticket.

        Not sure if that helps your situation or not, but I figured I’d mention it.

      3. They must have changed that since I was a regular commuter.

        I don’t mind coughing the fee up for the occasional trip across the sound.

    3. I disagree. The decline is because the recession killed off the last of the living wage jobs in most ferry served regions.

      Many young families left the school districts and the rural areas when they moved to wherever they had to go to find work. The home foreclosure rates have been devastatingly high.

      I’d sure like to see a study done on the ages of the people who lost their homes, and whether they stayed in their local area, or moved more than 50 miles away.

    4. What do you pay to drive on a highway? Other than a very few tolled roads, you pay nothing extra .

      Ferry riders do not have that important savings.

  3. A high-speed passenger ferry, purchase and operations, doubtless costs less than a much slower car-carrying boat. So wouldn’t the most sensible solution would be to charge what it costs to carry a passenger, and do the same for an automobile?

    Especially for a trip terminating in Seattle, where there is a whole region-full of public transit within a five minute walk across an elevated bridge? It is true that Metro will need to restore at least one line of through bus service along First Avenue.

    The Downtown Seattle Transit Project certainly did not foresee that the Waterfront Streetcar, which carried many ferry passengers, would be eliminated after ten years’ useless deterioration. And before 1990, the Downtown Seattle Transit Project strung trolley wire for service connecting the west end of the bridge with the King County Courthouse.

    The one percent for art won’t allow the wire terminating fifteen feet above the intersection at James and Second as public art.

    The surrealist movement in the art world- you know, melting clocks, hash-smoking angels, useless trolley overhead-, it’s unbelievably on-topic for transit- died before the Second World War.

    It’s hard to believe how docilely passengers let First Avenue service be almost completely removed. The street rail “Connector” will be definitely be a remedy, though far from a complete one. But meantime, regular short-headway bus service will definitely reduce the number of passengers demanding freighters instead of jet-boats.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Mark, after yesterday evening’s comments about your posts sometimes being confusing, I’d just like to say this is one of your most cogent posts recently. Restoring service on First Avenue might help, but by far a bigger problem is restoring service in Kitsap County. People can walk two blocks uphill in Seattle or take the 12, but walking multiple miles on the other side of the Sound is almost impossible. Before we reroute Seattle buses, let’s improve the other side of their journey.

      If WSF wants to tackle their declining ridership in innovative ways, perhaps they could directly subsidize Kitsap Transit routes.

      1. If the Madison BRT project ever gets finished, that might help the Seattle end of things.

        It isn’t just a matter of the two blocks walk but the fact that it is a two blocks walk to a stop with two bus routes that might go where you need, and a third bus route that sort of connects you on an occasional basis to some of the other routes in a roundabout fashion.

        It would be an expensive proposition, but if money were unlimited the project I would like to see is a horizontal extension of the current Marion walkway so that it goes all the way to a mezzanine at a Link / Transit Tunnel station.

      2. The problem with Madison BRT is that it doesn’t connect to Link at Third Avenue. The 10/12 is already fairly easy to reach already from Colman Dock, so the BRT will only go one block closer.

        The streetcar project will be much more effective, as it will reach Link near both IDS and Westlake, as well as provide direct service to SLU and the Harborview area.

      3. IMO Kitsap Transit does an exceptional connecting buses it ferries during commute times. An example of great service is if you arrive on the fringes of commute time ~7:45 to 9:00PM you can hop on a “Ferry Take Home” bus, which literally takes you to your home or nearest corner.

      4. There is zero bus service in Island County on Sundays, and Mon – Saturday service has been drastically reduced as well.

        What a lot of commenters forget is that a LOT of vehicles are commercial vehicles that deliver to the rural areas, and pick up things from the rural areas. There are also people who drive for a living that ride ferries. When everything is built to reward people with M – F jobs that are in one set location — our rural economies suffer badly.

        And for WSF to give small vehicles lower fares is a cost that businesses who will have to pay much higher fares to compensate, will have to pass along to their customers.

        WSF and every state agency need to work together to better serve us.

    2. Now I get it. Mark posts left-brain artistic comments for right-brain bloggers to scratch their heads over.

      But Mark brings up a good point that is marginally on topic: the streetcar connection between the ferry dock and the rest of downtown, which existed before the Waterfront Streetcar fell victim to bad land-use planning from the Arts Community. I continue to regret my vote for the waterfront art museum, but only because of the loss of the waterfront streetcar.

      Connecting the ferry docks with the other transit hubs (Westlake Station and IDS/King Street Station) is a job perfectly suited to the 1st Ave Streetcar, and perhaps the strongest reason for siting the new streetcar line on 1st Ave. Given its utility to Kitsap commuters, maybe SDOT could use that to justify a state mobility grant for the 1st Ave streetcar line.

      1. Many thanks, William and Brent, for indication that my cogency efforts are in the right direction- not brain-wise, because I think the human system of perception is a lot more complicated than that. Reason we didn’t get eaten by leopards soon as we fell out of our first tree.

        But for both the wheel house and the transit driver’s seat, it’s also life and death that without conscious thought, we’re able to smell burning rubber, grease, or wiring whatever passengers smell like, hear a worn bearing amid all a road’s other noises, and intuit which vibration among dozens means either flashers and curb-lane or “Lifeboats!”

        Check out wiki for surrealism link: how weirdness can be harnessed to release the very walled-up ideas that can solve a new problem just arisen. Including hidden meaning of trolleywire ending a block below its destination for 25 years. Problem in Europe was that concentrated irrationality also caused Hitler, giving Auschwitz the world’s best catenary.

        One reason people pick the standard ferries is a non-rational choice to commute where they can relax, walk around, and get food and coffee while the scenery goes by. Ocean liners lasted awhile before humans could stand the faster planes. But modern high-speed passenger craft can now be large and comfortable too. With luck…problem also solved.

        With people willing to pay for it, too.


    3. I totally agree about needing to shift the balance of people from in-vehicle to walk-on passengers. I generally dislike park n rides as a transit solution, but it seems like a good idea for Bremerton, at least (I can’t speak to Bainbridge Island). The rideshed of the ferry is too large and sparsely populated for buses to be practical, but I would still rather that they park over there than over here.

      1. Bremerton has the highest percentage of walk on trips of any route in the ferry system. It’s over 60% of all trips on the run. Also as you’ll see in the origin destination report posted by Ann, about 50% of all trips on the Bremerton run are to downtown West Brem and close in Easy Brem (aka Manette). Both of these areas are compact urban areas very well served by buses, and very walkable and bike able. Anyone interested should observe the morning commute at the Bremerton dock for a very good expel of intermodal connections. Most Bremerton folk are moderate income folk who know it’s way cheaper to leave their cars at home, and walk on if they can.

      2. What do you think should be done for grocery delivery trucks, UPS trucks, jobs that require vehicles?

        There is a huge category of people who cannot walk, ride a bus or a train.

    4. At cost per passenger the vehicle ferries are far more efficient than the passenger only ferries ever were. When the super class ferries were still able to go 20 knots and before the whole thing started with erosion in Rich Passage you saved on average about 10 minutes on the crossing over the vehicle ferry.

      Fundamentally the expensive operation for little gain relative to the vehicle ferries is why WSF shut down it’s passenger only ferries and sold them, with limited money they needed to move the most people for the lowest cost per mile.

      While it makes sense to structure fees to charge what it actually costs to move a car, passenger or what not (or a % of farebox recovery) expensive passenger only ferries are not something we should revisit.

  4. This may be an unpopular view, but:

    Transporting cars across a body of water on a boat is simply a very expensive thing to do, and I’m not at all sure we should be attempting to subsidize it such that it makes good financial sense for a median-income household to do such a thing over 500 times a year. There’s a limit to the number of dollars we can spend on transportation subsidies, and it’s not at all clear this rather extravagant use of them–one that doesn’t fit with environmental or congestion-reducing goals, since it subsidizes car use–is a wise choice for a significant subsidy. Certainly, it lowering prices slightly or offering more attractive bulk discounting stabilizes or perhaps increases revenue for the ferry service, by all means they should do it. But the median income commuter should probably rethink their strategy for commuting; we simply can’t create a system of subsidies that render all commuting preferences within reach of middle class families.

    1. Maybe Ann was too subtle on this point: The car space on the ferries is fully-utilized at most times. The passenger space comes nowhere near full utlilization. In short, WSF isn’t charging the cars enough and is charging people too much.

      Indeed, WSF is the only part of the state highway system that charges pedestrians a toll. Not charging passengers at all on some routes has been looked at, but of course, that wouldn’t help WSF’s budget problem.

      I’m not sure where the politics has gotten in the way of WSF honoring inter-agency transfers and passes on ORCA, but I would draw a parallel to the monorail. Like the monorail, WSF mostly attracts tourists. With fair integration (WSF is the only partner in the ORCA pod that doesn’t accept inter-agency transfers and passes), WSF is likely to keep getting the walk-on tourist revenue, and gain back a lot of riders who have decided to make their daily commutes the long way around. In contrast to the monorail, where people are just taking buses parallel to the monorail, pricing people into driving comes with a huge carbon footprint.

      The governor should take the reigns and make WSF ORCA fare integration a priority. Indeed, I would predict, based on Ann’s descriptions of the tipping point, that fare integration would actually lead to an upward bump in revenue for WSF. Staff recommends restoring fare integration. Make it so!

      1. “Like the monorail, WSF mostly attracts tourists” What are the numbers on that? This might be true for certain routes like in the San Juans, but I still think the majority of WSF is used by commuters and others who need the service for something other than tourism. The ferries are a vital public service for many people throughout the region.

        Hasn’t there also been a general drop in vehicle miles traveled? People aren’t choosing instead to drive the long way around (if such a possibility even exists). I think the aging population in Kitsap County is making everyone more home-bound. Bremerton is a relatively pleasant and consistent commute downtown compared to just about any other suburb – I’m surprised ridership is dropping.

      2. The South Sound and Central Sound routes are used more for commuting, the North Sound and Anacortes routes are used more by tourists – but all routes have some commuters, and all routes have some tourists. Interestingly, in ferry dependent communities, the percentage of homes that are used seasonally or occasionally increased between 2000 and 2010, according to the Census. In San Juan County, about a third of all houses are vacation homes.

      3. The Mukilteo-Clinton run is a heavily used commuter and business delivery to and from.

        It moved nearly 4,000,000 people in 2014 according to WSF posted data.

    2. “I’m not sure where the politics has gotten in the way of WSF honoring inter-agency transfers and passes on ORCA”

      Is it politics or is it 695? It sounds like there’s an argument that the ferry service can’t afford the loss of revenue of honoring transfers and passes.

      1. I-695 may be limiting the rate of fare increases (to roughly 3% annually, IIRC), but the legislature can override that. They’ve got the power.

        If staff thought fare integration would lead to less revenue, I doubt they would be recommending it.

      2. I-695 does NOTHING to limit fare increases. Quite the opposite since almost all the MVET revenue was taken away from WSF.

    3. I completely agree. Subsidizing car ferries is subsidizing driving. The fuel use of the massive ferries and of all the additional cars the ferries enable isn’t something transit advocates should encourage. It makes no sense if you believe in a liberal conscientious society. It also makes no sense if you believe in free market. Why are we subsidizing car ferries if the free market can take care of it. The only way subsidizing car ferries makes sense (excepting island interests looking for free lunch) is if the ferry users have no choice but to drive on either side. What we should be advocating for is sufficient transit on either side so residents don’t have to pay the huge price of ferrying a two ton vehicle across the sound twice a day.

      1. EXACTLY.

        We at STB should be for a strong transit net – complete with county connectors & strong county-level transit systems – for the entire Puget Sound.

        The more passengers, less automobiles on WSF ferries the better. Not to mention the sales of coffee, food, keepsakes, et al that WSF could make money from to pay those union benefits.

      2. It is naïve not to count the need for commercial delivery vehicles, and the need for personal business vehicle travel. Many, many commuters use their own vehicles for their employment – a required thing.

        This constant ‘get all people out of their cars’ refrain is illogical.

    4. One of the mandates of government IS providing affordable mobility.

      Washington State has the largest ferry system in the United States, because we have the most waterways to islands and land masses.

      Penalizing people who live across water, but not penalizing people who live across mountains, or who live 100 miles from a large city is not equitable, nor appropriate.

      Ferries as marine highways do not deliver equitable mobility, whether via bus, vehicle or walking aboard.

      That lack of equity in mobility causes economic damage in every way imaginable.

  5. Forget about high speed passenger ferries folks…

    They’re a premium service.
    They’ve got a wake wash problem that ended up in the courts…
    They are more unreliable than conventional ferries with less maintainers aboard…
    They will encourage sprawl on Kitsap…

    Other than that, high speed passenger ferries are a great idea for a transit agency to get into. There’s several good reasons why WSF got out of that business and why only King County with the density & ferry taxing district currently has ’em.

    1. I’m with Joe on this one. A big chunk of what is driving the demand for cross-sound passenger ferry service is that WSF is charging too much for walk-on passengers. Problem is, if the passenger ferries charge even less, they’ll do as abysmally financially as the Kingston-Seattle express did. (This is one of the lines Kitsap Transit is considering, btw, and the other lines are likely to pencil out even worse.)

      WSF has room for more passengers — lots of room. The limitation is available lifejackets and lifeboats, which cost far less to get than brand new ferries, for which demand is inflated by not charging the vehicles enough. And as I pointed out in a thread above, WSF doesn’t necessarily need to reduce passenger fares. It just needs to integrate with the rest of the ORCA pod so that regular transit users aren’t paying two or three times on each trip.

      1. Thanks Brent, I’ve noticed the same.

        Passenger-Only Fast Ferries (POFFs hereafter for brevity) are racehorses and will cost more per-passenger to operate. That’s before wake wash, noise, emissions and other environmental issues that supposedly POFFs would solve. Plus POFFs would have to be cost-competitive to the rider which means the general taxpayer would be stuck for a premium service to enable & increase unnecessary sprawl*. Meanwhile we have bus services that have tapped out their taxation authority and yet are struggling to recover from depleted reserves (e.g. Island Transit, Community Transit) or needed a voter-approved bailout (e.g. King County Metro).

        ORCA + WSF is the way to go. More lifeboats are always a great idea…


        *As opposed to serving major airports between Everett & Tacoma where few people want to live next to airport noise with also decreasing property values.

    2. Scott;

      1) I’ve heard the wake wash is somewhat reduced. But still… one lawsuit and it’s all gone. If the private sector wants to accept the risk of an injunction that made the almost $20 mil (in 1999 dollars) MVs Chinook & Snohomish investment a money burn – more power to free markets. Let the public sector run the ferry system that if privatized would be a monopoly due to high financial barriers of entry.

      Then there’s the little matter of, um, we have bus-centric transit dollars and taxpayers’ dollars that aren’t going far enough. Yet you want some of that money for POFFs after our state blew so much money? NO.

      Oh and BTW, where are the MVs Tyee, Kalama and Skagit? Oh the latter two were sold to Tanzania and after the Skagit sank & killed hundreds due to overboarding & misuse ( ), according to WikiPedia the Kalama was found to be unsafe at any speed and left to rot.

      The Tyee? Back in Alaska as a tour boat:

      I mention this to make a firm point: The public sector has no business running passenger-only ferries. Zero. Regulating them? Absolutely.

      2) Not necessarily. Some if not many will want to live in a situation that requires one or more bus routes to feed the customers from house to the POFF terminal. Again, part of the draw of Kitsap is the buildable land remaining for homes w/ lawns, garages, et al.

    3. Joe, whether adequate marine mobility causes ‘sprawl’ or serves the rural regions and military bases is like the chicken and egg.

      The state has no business penalizing any region. The fact is, our natural geography has more water than any other region in the US, therefore our need for WSF and more ferries is one of the largest necessary components for WSDOT and the State of WA.

      Do you really want military bases to leave WA? That’s been discussed in many situations, because of the lack of reasonable ferry mobility as a main issue.

  6. And now, by obligatory mention of the low-income fare missing link (which is Washington State Ferries).

    Kitsap Transit has had a low-income fare program since 1985. King County Metro’s program will go into effect March 1, with the low-income ORCA also being honored on Link Light Rail, the Seattle Streetcars (pending expected approval by its board early next month), and King County Ferries.

    Kitsap and King County will also honor each others’ low-income ORCAs. That includes the two Kitsap Transit foot ferries, for which the fare is the same as KT buses.

    For getting between the two counties, the only options are WSF or driving (or perhaps both, especially when paying for the bus on each end is extra, meaning more limited space is being used up on the ferry car deck because of the lack of ORCA fare integration). It seems to me that low-income commuters driving around or onto the ferry bring the highest carbon footprint, given the high cost of replacing a smogmobile (which can be obtained, used, for a few hundred dollars) with a Prius or Tessla. And of course, which are more likely to break down, and cause a jam on the ferry deck?

    Integrating ORCA fares, and honoring the low-income ORCA, should actually lead to a few more spaces for cars on the ferries, reducing the carbon footprint of those cars, better utilization of the heavily-underitilized passenger space, AND MORE REVENUE FOR WASHINGTON STATE FERRIES.

    Thanks, Ann, for watchdogging the WSF fare system, and for enlightening us on WSF’s biennial fare restructure process.

  7. The “tipping point” argument has been used before, and individuals’ anecdotal evidence of travel patterns is no substitute for hard, macroeconomic data. The fact remains that while usage has declined with each fare increase–Economics 101 tells us this will occur–total revenue has not declined.

    If the intention is to carry more passengers then fares should be lowered, but if the need is for more revenue then fare policy should continue as it has in the past.

    There is no magic solution to the WSF financial dilemma: Moving vehicles across water is an expensive proposition and either the legislature should step in to provide needed funding for both operations and capital replacement and expansion or that money will have to come from the users.

    1. Or, the Washington State Transportation Commission could actually read the staff reports and recommendations, and raise vehicle fares faster than passenger fares (since vehicle space is the bottleneck and there is plenty of room for more passengers).

      Ann has been following this issue for years and reading through the data. Her arguments are not based on anecdotal evidence.

      1. Be sure not to forget the need for military personnel, and civilian personnel to travel via ferries.
        Again, these folks generally cannot carpool or ride buses.

        The military is a very high user of ferries. We short change them and ourselves when we forget this fact. Think about where all our Western WA military bases are located: WSF ferry land.

      2. Right, Whidbey Island & on the Kitsap Peninsula.

        What we really need is another fixed link – preferably 2 standard lanes and 2 HOV lanes with possibly rail between Whidbey & Skagit, but of course the Whidbey political left & right would unite against it.

      3. Military bases in Washington State that are affected by WSF ferries.

        NAS Whidbey – which also often sends personnel and civilians back and forth from NS Navy Everett via the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry.

        NS Navy Everett – see above.

        Naval Hospital, Bremerton Naval Base

        Naval Base Kitsap in Silverdale (try to get there from Seattle without riding a ferry). This is the merging of Naval Station Bremerton and Naval Submarine Base Bangor. This is now the 3rd largest Naval Base in the US Fleet, and the single largest naval installation in the Navy Region NW.

        Thousands and thousands of personnel and civilians doing business with the bases must ride ferries for work as well as for pleasure. If we lose any base in this State, we’re in economic trouble.

      4. Light rail between Whidbey and Skagit?? Not even close to being affordable, and would not serve the greatest commuting need.

        The ferries are the weak link, not HOV carpool lanes or mass transit.

        The war on cars hurts our independence, our economy and our military requirements for mobility.

    2. The fact remains that while usage has declined with each fare increase–Economics 101 tells us this will occur–total revenue has not declined.

      Perhaps I’m misreading something but how do you square this assertion with the post’s claim:

      Fare revenue from multi-ride fare media declined more than $5M between 2006 and 2010, from $48.5M to $43.1M.

      That’s a decline and a big one. There were, I believe, fare increases during that time, no?

      1. Fares went up, usage went down–same as for almost any good or service.

        But total WSF systemwide revenue went up, and that is my point. The fare structure is designed to be equitable across all routes, so individual route-specific and fare type-specific changes are not relevant to this discussion. (Some have suggested that vehicle fares should rise while passenger fares should not; that is a separate policy-driven suggestion which would not invalidate this customer behavior.)

        Ongoing fare surveys have shown WSF’s overall demand continues to be less price-sensitive than some people believe, so higher fares, while driving some users away from the network, have and will continue to produce higher revenue. Take a look a WSF financials and you will see that systemwide revenue continues to rise.

        Example: Something costs $10 and 5,000 people buy it, total revenue $50,000. Then its price is raised to $10.50 and 200 former customers choose to no longer buy the product. Therefore only 4,800 people buy it but total revenue rises of $50,400.

      2. Total systemwide revenue is not stated above, or at least not with the clarity that the drop in revenue from multi-ride media is noted.

        In fact, systemwide revenue is defined as “static”, bolstering the author’s conclusion that the ability to respond to funding crises with further across-the-board fare hikes has reached its breaking point, and that the distribution of fare assessments must be immediately revisited if the system is to remain functional and solvent.

        Do you have any evidence to support your claim that total revenue has risen?

      3. There were fare increases in 2007 and 2009, yet fare revenue went down in 2009 to less than was earned in 2007.

        Robert, I’m not suggesting that ALL customers are sensitive to ferry fares – only households that are spending thousands per year in fares. Using your example: Something costs $10 and 4,000 people buy one of it, but 20 people buy 50 each, total revenue $50,000. Then its price is raised to $10.50 and 10 former high-volume customers choose to only buy one of the product. Therefore 4,010 people buy one of it ($42,105) and 10 buy 50 of it ($5,250) so total revenue is only $47,355.

        Affordability is a key driver of where people choose to live. High tolls change the math of “what is affordable” for commuter households.

        Source for ferry revenue data:

  8. We should also look at why so many ferry commuters exist, and why anyone would pay $6,096/year to go to a $43,193 job (that’s 14% of their income, not including car expenses, or higher if that’s gross pay rather than take-home pay). The answer is there aren’t enough jobs on the west side. Some people may be commuting because they’re treating it as an exurb (a big yard! a beautiful boat commute!), but others grew up there or live near their relatives, or part of their family works at the navy bases. They’re working at a variety of companies in Tacoma or going to college there, or industrial jobs in south King County and Snohomish County, or various jobs throughout Seattle (particularly downtown, First Hill, and north Seattle). In some cases the Narrows Bridge is an alternative; in other cases it isn’t. The more we raise the ferry fare, the more it diverts people to the bridge, sometimes driving ten or twenty miles longer. That’s not necessarily better from an environmental or congestion perspective. So, maybe some of those people should move to the east sound counties. But many of them can’t afford to or really don’t want to, or one family member works on one side and one on the other side and they also have kids going to school.

    I don’t know what the answer is or what the ferry fares should be, but the biggest problem seems to be the job imbalance (the west side never fully recovered from the loss of logging). I’m not sure that punishing commuters so that people can’t work and have to move to the east side is the answer, especially if it results in the western five counties becoming ghost towns where only the elderly, the independently wealthly, and navy workers can live.

    1. Myself, I treat living on the west side of the sound mostly “as an exurb”. It lets me live closer to natural areas (I love being able to ride my bicycle to trail heads) without having to live in the sort of soul-sucking sprawl there is east of Lake Washington and sit in traffic a lot. (Regarding the latter: one look at Issaquah’s ten lane arterials with minimal or no bicycle facilities convinced me that the Eastside was no place for me.)

      I commute by bicycle, too. My home is within a mile of the ferry landing on Bainbridge Island and work is within a mile of Coleman Dock in Seattle. The Winslow area of BI is small enough that I can get anywhere easily on a bike (and there’s at least one of any sort of shop I need on an everyday basis), so that’s also how I do my daily errands.

      Kitsap Transit actually does a great job of integrating with the ferries for peak-hour commutes, but service tends to be skeletal to non-existent (no service at all on Sundays) at other times. That’s unlikely to significantly change, as Kitsap County in general just doesn’t have the sort of population density to support good transit.

      1. I would echo this. I lived in issaquah and far north Seattle before moving over. For commuting downtown, the ferry is better than my previous bus commutes. Especially factoring in what Bainbridge has to offer for those with kids.

      2. Considering the rural nature of Kitsap County, Kitsap Transit does a very good job of integrating with the ferry service.

        The complaints I’ve heard from co-workers who’ve lived on the West side and from fellow commuters when I was doing the cross-sound commute:
        1. KT service doesn’t work well if you work irregular hours. If you have to go in late or stay late you may have little alternative but to take your car over or try to find parking near the dock.
        2. The free P&R lots along the bus routes serving the terminals fill quickly.
        3. No free parking within easy walking distance of the terminal on the West Side. In the case of Winslow and Bremerton this is somewhat by design. I’m not familiar enough with the situation in Vashon, Manchester, or Kingston to comment.
        4. Poor connections to/from Mukelteo, Edmonds, and Fauntleroy to regional employment centers. Primarily this is to Overlake and Bellevue, but I have heard from Kingston and Whidbey commuters about the pain making connections to downtown Seattle can sometimes be.

        I do have to say the ferry is a very pleasant commute. You have a great view, spot the occasional whale, have bathrooms and a snack bar.

      3. Where in Issaquah are all these 10 lane arterials? SR-900 is probably that wide between I-90 and Gilman Blvd., but that’s the only place I can think of (less than 1/4 mile). Highlands Drive is also pretty wide near I-90 but that’s also only for a short way. East Lake Sammamish/Front Street is also pretty wide near the freeway, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near 10 lanes.

    2. Spot on comments, Mike.

      Jobs on the west side, got slammed to the ground during the recession, and have not come back.

      Tourism jobs pay poverty wages, so people who live in the rural ferry served areas who like to eat, gotta work away.

      Rural areas that are surrounded by water must have decent mobility, and that mobility must be on an equal par with land rural areas. Right now, if someone lives east of the Cascades – I-90 is golden compared to the marine highway service from WSF.

      We need federal funding to be equalized to any area that get access by I-90. Ask our military base commanders what they think about the lack of mobility from our State legislators, Gov, and WSF.

  9. I have to agree with those who say cars are being charged too little and passengers too much.

    A good way to deal with this would be to fully integrate ORCA for passengers and bikes.

    A further problem is the lack of transit integration and service on both sides of the Sound. Due to the rural nature of Kitsap County and Vashion Island it is difficult to even provide minimal commuter bus service, by and large the only parking options near the terminals are private and charge a lot of money.

    Given the cost of new ferries and the operating subsidies passenger only boats require, a relatively cheap solution to some of the cross-Sound issues would be P&R lots within walking distance of the West side terminals. In addition having express buses meet the boats in Edmonds and Fauntleroy going to/from major employment centers would be a good idea.

    1. I hope the decision-makers remember this finding from 2013. “The ferries system justifies shifting more of the cost to vehicles not only to make fuller use of the boats but because the rates have been historically disproportionate, it says. Presuming WSF was set up to move vehicles, it only costs 18 percent more to accommodate passengers, yet they provide 25 percent of revenue.”

      1. From an article in the Whidbey newspaper. 50 years ago, in 1964, WSF was bragging about moving 130 cars every 1/2 hour, which is 260 cars each hour.

        That is all they move today, in 2015. What gives??

        Ferry business enjoys record customers on sunny weekend

        “Columbia Beach-Mukilteo ferries did a booming business over the weekend, with sunny skies and opening day of the fishing season combining to bring out a record number of customers.

        “H.R. Dally, the local manager, said that more than 1,800 more units used the ferry over the weekend of last year. Both boats ran full speed from Friday until 11:30 p.m. Sunday, carrying an average of 130 cars every 30 minutes.”

        Todays’ Mukilteo/Clinton service shows the 2 vessels are the Kittitas, which carries 124 vehicles, and the Chelan, also a 124 vehicle boat.
        That means WSF is moving on 2/5/2015 only 248 vehicles per hour, 51 years after the 1964 news article where they bragged about moving 260 vehicles per hour.

        Where is the new 144-vehicle vessel, the Tokitae anyway? Broken again?

        And if we had 2 of those, the total would be 288 vehicles each hour, which is only 28 more vehicles per hour for this run than in 1964.

        This isn’t progress, folks. Whidbey and NAS Whidbey has grown tremendously since 1964. People are spending far too many hours trying to make a living, and tourists, who are a mainstay of rural economies, are stuck in ferry lines for hours and hours during the summer.

        WSF and the State Transportation Committee needs to fix this mismanaged mess immediately.

  10. The issues that surround ferry demand are complex, and require some dissection before it’s reasonable to make any conclusions about fares.

    1. I would first want to know what is dropping the most — motorized vehicles or pedestrians/bicyclists? Are there any trends for trucks or freight, or trends among modes of access (walk, bicycle, transit, drop-off, park-and-ride)?

    2. I would want to also know if the ferry demand drops are more precipitous for some routes than on others, or if it is a general trend.

    3. I would want to know how the markets (from the time of day and ultimate destination info) are changing. The post suggests that ferry demand is declining because commuters are using it less. Is this because commuters are retiring, or are they just not going to work in or near Downtown Seattle? If the trends suggest that it is

    4. Is any of the decline related to the opening of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in 2007, or the more recent completion of the I-5 freeway improvements in central Tacoma?

    A ferry is like any transportation investment that serves many markets, and making blanket conclusions about fares isn’t going to be very strategic unless some more explanation is provided. Is there a way to find out?

      1. Thanks Ann. While it doesn’t provide all of the specifics, the report does say some interesting things.

        1. It looks like the opening of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 2007 had an effect at decreasing ferry use. the decrease of South Sound riders is much more significant.

        2. It looks like there is a directional imbalance for the Southworth-Vashon-West Seattle ferry that is attributable to the directional bridge tolls. This suggests that there cannot be a fare strategy without assessing the relationship of bridge tolls.

        Unfortunately, the report does not describe where the ferry users are bound once they reach Downtown Seattle.

    1. “Routes with heavy frequent use and commuter traffic have experienced the greatest drop in
      ridership. . . . The composition of the ridership also changed, with vehicle/driver ridership dropping 12 percent and passenger ridership from walk‐ons and additional passengers in vehicles dropping 19 percent. Of the 4.2 million fewer trips, 2.8 million are passenger trips and 1.4 million are vehicle/driver trips.”  Ferry Fare Media Study

    2. Al S. said “2. It looks like there is a directional imbalance for the Southworth-Vashon-West Seattle ferry that is attributable to the directional bridge tolls. This suggests that there cannot be a fare strategy without assessing the relationship of bridge tolls.” Passenger fares for the Southworth-Fauntleroy route are only charged westbound on the ferries. That provides a large incentive for westbound cars with passengers to drive around, as passenger fares range from $3.10 to $6.25 per person. The fact that the bridge toll is only charged eastbound does exacerbate that imbalance.

  11. There’s an Internet mistake in lumping all of Kitsap County together. Also the idea of bringing a car every day is crazy talk.

    I moved from outer Seattle to Bainbridge and work in downtown Seattle. Almost all days my afternoon ferry commute is faster and more reliable than my in city transit trip. Amazonians plug away on their laptops to and from while staying connected. My employer covers my ferry pass. Kitsap transit serves commuter routes that cover all of the Island. With few exceptions, if you have kids, it’s really a great option.

  12. Some interesting numbers:

    Cost per passenger-mile for the ferries in 2013 was $1.32, which puts it into the range of Link or some of the better bus routes.

    There’s no local funds or federal funds providing the operating income. It’s entirely state funds and fares. A more typical transit agency has a mix including local and federal:

    Maybe there needs to be an effort to get the walk on passengers counted as transit passengers? FTA funds aren’t supposed to go to roads, and the Washington State Ferries are somewhat an extension of the road system. However, the walk-on passengers are more like transit passengers than auto traffic. Even if they park and ride it is still similar to regular transit park and ride.

    Oh, and for park and ride: I’ve been told by a few other visitors to Seattle that they just take their car with them when they take a ferry trip out of Seattle, mostly because it is cheaper to do that than pay for parking at Coleman Dock. When arranging the prices for park and ride lots near the ferry, there needs to be some connection between the price to park there and the price to take the car on the boat.

  13. I would have to guess that there are very few median-income earners who drive a car alone onto a ferry as part of their everyday commute. It’s something that those of us who commute cross-sound try to avoid, due to both the cost and the uncertainty of getting a spot.

    As I mentioned in another post on this thread, Kitsap Transit does a great job of integrating its buses with the ferries during peak hours, and many commuters choose that option. There’s also large parking facilities near most of the terminals on the west side, so others drive, park, and walk on. My option of commuting by bicycle is popular, and motorcycle commuting is another option. Some even have tiny vehicles like the Meyers NMG or the things meter maids use (which are treated as motorcycles). Not only is it far cheaper to take a bike (motor or otherwise) on the ferry than a car, but you get priority treatment as well (first on, first off).

    Upshot is there are a *lot* of people walking on the ferry in the morning and afternoon. There’s easily several hundred bus passengers that make the timed transfer to the boat at the peak times; that alone matches or exceeds the vehicle capacity of the car deck. Then there’s people who drive, but carpool. Splitting that vehicle fare three or four ways does a lot to lessen its bite.

    Yes, there *are* those who drive a car alone onto the ferry, but my guess is that demographic is strongly skewed to the high end of the income distribution.

    1. Even a monthly pass commuter is charged more per year than the retired couple in the example.

      1. That is terrible. Working people and business deliveries/pick ups need to have the best fares, both for walk ons and for vehicles.

  14. [ad hom]. Try the Steamship Authority for ferries from Woods Hole, MA to Marthas Vineyard, about the same distance as Brainless to Seattle. The round trip walk on is $17.00. The round trip bicycle surcharge is $8.00. Please sit down and hold a hand under your jaw for this one. A round trip car (under 17′) is $87.00 in the winter season and $137,00 in the summer. The driver and each passenger pays an additional walk-on fare.

    I occasionally use the ferry and really appreciate the folks from east of the Cascades contributing to my ride. At least we Sounders get something back for all the money that flows east.

    1. And the ferries are packed in the summer. Reservations almost always required. And don’t forget the 70 mile bumper to bumper drive from Boston to get to the ferry.

  15. While all the talk about discouraging vehicle usage by fare increases may well apply to southern routes, San Juan residents face a different challenge. Not only are there virtually no transit connections on either end, but a vehicle is necessary to get to the various required places spread on the mainland. It is also necessary for the carrying of goods too large for hand carrying as a walk on. The use of the term “commuter” on our routes is completely inappropriate for any vehicle traffic. But vehicles used in business at both ends and vehicles needed to obtain necessary goods and services on the mainland leave many in the “frequent user” category, where annual ferry fares are a significant percentage of household income. For these San Juan County residents, the tipping point is here or near. Sure, these users get buried by the occasional/one-time tourist but nevertheless are a mainstay of what keeps the local community vibrant. Without that vibrant community the tourists would find their visit far less attractive. San Juan County delivers significantly more funds to the State coffers than it takes from them– in fact the highest ratio county in the state.

    1. One of the issues in my community (Anderson Island) is that a large and growing percentage of our homes are purchased by occasional users (more than 42%). These vacation home owners flood the system during the summer months, creating the need for additional services and corresponding expenses, but they are charged the same price using the multi-ride vehicle tickets as year-round residents are charged in winter. I notice that San Juan County also has a growing percentage of seasonal/vacation/weekend homes – over 36% in Census 2010. Dan, do you have any ideas on how to more fairly distribute the costs of ferry service so that your communities stay vibrant and viable?

  16. A few years ago, I researched the base fare/monthly pass multiple. I found a national average of monthly passes costing 36 times the base fare. This also makes sense, if you think about a regular commuter traveling 20 days a month (she doesn’t go in on a couple of days), pricing it at 36 makes sense. But the WSF is a unique case, so I’m not going to opine on what those prices should be.

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