After a series of community meetings the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) and its “Ferry Advisory Committee – Tarriff” (FAC-T) hold every two years, the WSTC is proposing a schedule of fare changes. Various options were presented to the WSTC at its June meeting, before the Commission settled on its proposal to go to the final round of public input.
The main fare policy changes include:
- 2.5% fare increases for vehicles on October 1, 2019 and May 1, 2020
- 2% fare increases for passengers on those same dates
- a separate 25-cent increase to the “capital surcharge” (which is already 25 cents) on May 1, 2020, dedicated to building a new hybrid diesel/electric ferry. That surcharge increase will be roughly 12 cents for senior, disability, and youth fares.
- increased penalties for reservation no-shows starting October 1, 2019
- a 3-year pilot project for accepting payment using WSDOT’s Good-to-Go Pass
- a 3-year pilot project for a low-income fare category.
Many other countries are converting their ferry fleets as quickly as the various government agencies can, partly because of the climate crisis, but also because the large lithium batteries are now price-competitive with burning diesel, depending on local regulations and taxes. WSDOT lists ferries as the source of 67% of its greenhouse-gas emissions, per a recent report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Journal.
The recently-passed state transportation budget included funding for building a new hybrid diesel/electric ferry (funded primarily by the additional 25-cent “capital surcharge” on each regular fare) and converting one of its largest ferries to hybrid. Portage plug-in capability is estimated to start being available in 2021, and enable fully-battery-powered operations on the hybrid ferries by 2023. The portage power will be sourced from hydroelectric dams. As funding becomes available, the remaining two largest ferries will be converted. WSF’s Long-Range Plan calls for all new ferries to be hybrid.
Corvus Energy, based in British Columbia, is a primary manufacturer of ferry batteries, per a report from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Ironically, BC Ferries is having to go it slow on conversion due to the need to have its ferries able to run its longest routes, pushing the limits of the batteries’ storage power. Roughly 90% of Corvus’s batteries are exported to Europe and Asia, where regulations, fuel taxes, and subsidies make them economical, per the article.
Low-Income Fare Pilot Project
The low-income fare pilot project proposal would leverage existing transit agency low-income programs (e.g. ORCA LIFT and Kitsap Transit’s program that has been in place since 1985), and offer a discounted fare for those who have qualified through such programs. The amount of the discount is yet to be determined. However, the youth (6-18), senior (65+), and disability fares are a single consolidated discount fare on each route, and half or less of the regular fare on that route. A funding source is yet to be determined. The program would commence no earlier than 2020, after the State Legislature approves a funding source, and then after the WSTC subsequently approves the specific fares. It would last no more than three years, unless WSTC takes further action to make it ongoing.
Washington State Ferries is one of two agencies in the ORCA pod that does not have a low-income fare. The other is Pierce Transit. Community Transit and Everett Transit recently joined King County Metro, Sound Transit, Kitsap Transit, and Seattle Streetcars in offering low-income fares on all their services. The Seattle Center Monorail, which may start accepting ORCA cards as early as September of this year, would also have a low-income fare. Sound Transit funds ORCA LIFT qualification in Pierce County.
Several counties served by WSF are not set up to qualify riders for a low-income fare, nor do their transit agencies have such a category. That includes Island County, Jefferson County, San Juan County, and Skagit County. However, Skagit County charges $1 for a local ride and $2 for an inter-county Connector ride, Jefferson Transit charges $1.50 for an all-day pass, Island Transit is still free, and San Juan County lacks a public bus agency. The majority of WSF ridership is on routes connecting with ORCA-pod bus agencies with low-income fares serving each terminal.
Washington State Ferries is the only member of the ORCA pod that does not honor inter-agency transfers or passes. The low-income fare project proposal does not specifically mention honoring inter-agency transfers or passes, even just for low-income fare payers.
Katie Wilson, General Secretary of the Seattle Transit Riders’ Union, offered this response to the pilot project:
For low-income workers and students who commute by ferry, fares are definitely a hardship. Low-income families may not see a ferry ride as an option for a weekend or day trip because of the cost. A low-income fare on the ferries will increase ridership and improve the quality of life for many Washington State residents.
WSTC has been studying the possibility of a low-income fare category since fall of 2016. WSF requested that the low-income pilot project be included in the 2019 biennial fare proposal.
This project was then part of the package presented at community presentations, but received scant comment. However, it was one of the few issues on which the FAC-T, which advises WSTC on all fare change proposals, agreed. The FAC-T has historically been split between a faction wanting to keep passenger fares high, and a faction that wants to raise vehicle fares faster than passenger fares, percentagewise. But on this one issue, the FAC-T agreed, so long as funding comes from a state subsidy, not fare revenue.
If WSTC offers a discount to Good-to-Go users (the other proposed pilot project), it will have a net effect of raising passenger fares at a higher rate than vehicle fares. The Good-to-Go pilot project is nevertheless likely to improve boarding speed. It is within the Legislature’s and WSTC’s power to fund both pilot projects by raising the vehicle fares further, regardless of the advice from FAC-T.
You can participate in an online survey on the proposals, and cast “votes” on them. WSTC will also accept comments in writing and via email through July 29, and then hold a hearing and vote on August 6.