Like most parts of the state's highway system, Washington's ferry system has serious financial problems. But unlike the...
Like most parts of the state’s highway system, Washington’s ferry system has serious financial problems. But unlike the state’s roads and bridges, where everyone is chipping in to meet the financial needs through higher gasoline taxes, the burden of paying for ferry service is falling more and more only on those who ride them.
For those of us who live in the San Juan Islands and are totally dependent on ferries to get from island to island or back and forth to the mainland, or for tourists who are the heart of the county’s economy, that burden has more than doubled in the past seven years.
In 1999, for instance, a family of four could travel between Friday Harbor and Anacortes for $33.65. Now it costs $68.85, a 105 percent increase. In peak season, the cost of that trip — often after a three-hour wait — is $85.25.
The percentage increase in fares on the other, shorter routes is a little less, but most of those people are riding ferries five days a week, commuting to and from jobs in the Seattle area. The increases add up fast.
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Now it is becoming clear that the “solution” to Washington State Ferries’ funding problem is going to continue to fall most heavily on those who depend on ferries as their highways. It is also clear that ferry users will have even less say than they have now in how ferry tolls are set.
The first clue that this would be the case was when a special study commissioned by the Legislature to find a permanent, sustainable source of funding for WSF came back mostly with a list of ways to raise tolls and spread out and/or depress vehicle demand for ferry service.
It did so even though it also found that the funding gap for ferry operations and capital needs was so large it couldn’t put a figure to it. A billion dollars looked like a reasonable estimate, though.
The continued over-reliance on tolls was underscored a couple of weeks later when the state Transportation Commission, which by law sets ferry tolls, recommended a 4 percent increase on May 1 — even though the governor and the Legislature said the figure should be held to 2.5 percent.
Then, at the same meeting and with no public notice or input, the commission summarily disbanded the Tariff Policy Committee, a 20-member group that includes representatives of ferry-served communities, which also had recommended that this year’s increase be held to 2.5 percent.
There was a glimmer of hope when some legislators from central Puget Sound communities introduced bills to shift an additional one-half-cent of the state’s 34-cent gas tax — potentially adding about $38 million every two years — to support WSF’s operating budget and bring at least a temporary end to fare increases of more than 2.5 percent. But those bills now appear dead because no one wants to shift even that small sum from the roughly $2.4 billion for planned road projects.
Now, two other bills are moving through the Legislature to turn many of the study’s tolling recommendations into law. In addition, the bills open the door to having ferry riders begin paying for WSF’s capital projects, such as building new ferries and expanding terminals, through toll surcharges. In part to ensure that is possible, the proposed legislation also says future toll increases can exceed inflation (as if they haven’t by huge amounts for the past eight years).
Bad as they are, these bills would be much less onerous if they were accompanied by a commitment from the Legislature to increase dedicated state support to this part of the state’s highway system. Absent that commitment and, instead, with clear opposition to the proposed half-cent shift in gas taxes to ferries, these bills are just more bad news to ferry riders.
That’s because they simply continue the massive shift in paying for ferry operations from dedicated state taxes — motor-vehicle-excise tax support was $60 million before the Legislature tossed it out in 2001 — to ferry riders, whose tariffs have increased, in some cases by as much as 20 percent in a single year, to make up for that loss.
Sixty percent of all ferry riders travel on routes in central Puget Sound, and their tolls already pay 100 percent or more of the cost of that service. Another 15 percent of central- or south-Sound riders pay nearly that large a percentage. (Most public-transit riders pay no more than 25 percent of the cost of their service.) These are people who depend on ferry service for their livelihoods.
Because there are so many of them and they account for so much of WSF’s revenue, they are at the greatest risk of losing their commuter discounts and having peak-time car-and-driver rates increase. The Legislature knows that, which is one reason it is trying to insulate itself from the screams of protest by shifting more responsibility for paying for ferry operations to the Transportation Commission. And the Transportation Commission has insulated itself as well by disbanding the Tariff Policy Committee.
For those of us in San Juan County, who are totally dependent on ferries to get to the mainland for doctor’s appointments, to attend off-island school events or just to experience the thrill of traffic jams, or to get from one part of the county to another, the risks are even greater.
Our tolls, despite having more than doubled in the past six years, only cover about 52 percent of the cost of providing the service. The pressure to raise that percentage will be enormous, yet the economic and social damage that will add to residents of the county, more than half of whom live on relatively small paychecks, will be devastating.
The cost of running ferries has increased about 9.5 percent every two years through the past decade, and it will increase more than that in the two years ahead. Yet, state tax support for ferries has declined precipitously.
The Legislature promised ferry riders at the end of its last session that future toll increases would be held to 2.5 percent. The Legislature needs to keep that promise.
In the meantime, the Transportation Commission should honor the Legislature’s promise and roll its recommended increase back to 2.5 percent when it considers the matter today.
Then it is time for the Legislature to acknowledge the harm done by its elimination of the motor-vehicle-excise tax. At the very least, it should take some part of the nearly 40 percent increase in the gas tax since the elimination of the motor-vehicle-excise tax — which ferry riders pay like everyone else — or some small piece of the nearly $4 billion increase in the state budget and fund ferry service at a reasonable level.
Alex MacLeod lives on Shaw Island and is chairman of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee, one of 13 such committees established by state law to provide WSF with community comments. He is the retired managing editor of The Seattle Times.