New Keystone Ferry terminal idea lives

Despite decreases in ridership, the man who runs Washington State Ferries and several other officials expressed a whole lot of optimism for the future of the system during a North Sound Ferry Advisory Committee meeting in Central Whidbey May 15.

And despite budget problems, State Ferries CEO Mike Thorne announced that the department is moving ahead with steps toward building a new terminal at Whidbey’s Keystone ferry landing area.

Fewer than a dozen citizens showed up for the meeting, though there were a number of high-ranking ferry officials in attendance. The residents voiced concerns about the ever-rising cost of riding the ferry, the long lines and plans to move the current Keystone ferry dock to a new location eastward on the beach.

Coupeville resident Gene McCormick, for example, said he was concerned that the high price of taking the ferry — which recently increased to $7.25 for a car and driver at Clinton — is causing more and more island residents to drive around through Deception Pass. He argued that the state should take increased road traffic into account before increasing fares.

“It’s pushing another problem onto the road system,” he said.

Thorne, however, pointed out that the Legislature mandated State Ferries fund 80 percent of its own operating costs. He said his plan, since becoming CEO about a year ago, is threefold — decrease operating costs by 5 percent, increase fare collection by 5 percent and increase other revenues by 5 percent.

Yet Thorne admitted that the fares, which have increased by about 37 percent since Initiative 695 passed, may be aggravating a recent and worrisome decline in ridership.

“In March, the numbers were down about 10 percent,” he said, “but we rebounded a little in April, though April’s number were down about 6 percent.”

Thorne said the decline is mainly in “discretionary riders,” or those who are vacationing instead of commuting. The bad economy, he added, could be another contributing factor. His challenge, he said, is to get these “infrequent users” to ride the ferries at times when there isn’t a two-boat wait.

“I can’t fill a boat that’s already full,” he said. “I’ve got to fill one that’s empty.”

Brian Volkert, the department’s new business development manager, explained that his job is to find new and creative ways for the ferry system to make money. He pointed out that ferries are a major selling point for tourism. One out of every three tourism-related images of Washington state, he said, features a ferry boat. He said the ferry system should be more aggressive in marketing itself to tourists.

Volkert said the ferry concession contract is going out for bids this summer, plus he wants to look into adding other services on ferry boats — from dry cleaning to massages. He also said he’s looking into leasing out ferry boats — for functions and parties — and putting advertising on the boards, which has generated much interest in the business community. Plus, he said the ferry system may be able to make more money off the real estate it owns around the terminals.

“There’s a lot of potential,” he said, “in ancillary services around the ferries.”

In regard to the Keystone ferry dock, Thorne said the department is just beginning an environmental study to see if re-locating the dock is feasible. He pointed out that the aging steel-electric boats used at the terminal won’t last forever and regular, modern ferries can’t be docked there because of the shallow water.

“We’d be hard pressed,” he said, “to build a special boat, with the costs these days, to be able to go into that challenging terminal.”

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