EDITORIAL: Ferry fare increase not so drastic

This year’s ferry fare increase will likely be 5 percent, a welcome break in the recent trend that saw double-digit increases the last two years.

It’s not that Washington State Ferries is out of financial trouble; more likely, ferry officials fear that another big increase will serve only to further reduce ridership. Ferry use has either decreased in recent years or not kept up with previous growth, which suggests that the hefty price hikes have taken their toll on the number of ferry trips made.

Besides the 5 percent hike, Whidbey Islanders will be hit another way when the new fares take effect in early May. The discount for passenger coupons will be reduced from 25 percent to 20 percent, meaning it will cost even more to drive to the mainland with the kids in tow.

The new fare proposals, from the Tariff Policy Committee, have a couple of new twists of interest to the ferry user community. Ferry officials will be able to negotiate group rates as well as rates for frequent commercial users. The aim is to enhance revenue, so officials apparently think they can lure large groups or additional commerce with discounted rates. It will be interesting to see if this is effective, and what regular ferry users will think when they find out that a group of sight-seers or Mariners game attendees are paying less per passenger. We could end up with an airline situation is which seatmates pay different fares to reach the same destination. This may not go over well with the public.

However, such experimentation is worth a try. The ferry system was already hurting due to the enormous impact of I-695 (the $30 license tab initiative), and efforts to replenish funding failed with R-51 last fall. The latest rate increase will help meet operating expenses, but will do nothing to secure the ferry system’s future in terms of adequate boats and facilities.

Public comments are being sought before the rate increase takes effect. Stop by Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland Thursday, Feb. 27 for a meeting that starts at 6:30 p.m., or e-mail your thoughts to tariff@wsdot.wa.gov.

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