State ferry system may face budget gap even with fare hike

The Edmonds-Kingston ferry. (File photo)

A pending price hike for Washington State Ferries travelers may not bring in enough money to cover the agency’s operating expenses, raising the possibility of further fare increases next year.

The Washington State Transportation Commission is on course to boost fares for vehicles and walk-on passengers by 4.25% on Oct. 1 and another 4.25% on Oct. 1, 2024. The panel is expected to approve the increases on Thursday.

Commissioners are also proposing to provide buyers of a 20-ride book the equivalent of five free trips, up from the four now offered on purchases of multi-ride passes.

Prices are climbing because the current transportation budget assumes the ferry system will generate $418.6 million from fares in the next two years, $28 million more than the last budget. Fares pay for 57% of ferry operations with state taxes covering the rest.

A June forecast of fare revenues says ridership is rising but not as fast as expected. As a result, the proposed increases will only net $19.3 million, leaving the agency with an $8.7 million hole to fill, according to a report presented to commissioners in July.

Farebox receipts are lagging as Washington State Ferries continues working to restore regular service on routes and recoup ridership, which in the first half of this year was at 77% of pre-pandemic levels, according to ferry officials.

Lawmakers could cover any shortfall in the 2024 supplemental transportation budget. Or ridership could rebound and the original projections could be realized. Or it could fall upon commissioners to erase the red ink.

“If we reach the spring of 2024 and the shortfall persists, the Commission may need to consider additional fare adjustments,” said Reema Griffith, the commission’s executive director.

Fares differ by route as well as vehicle size, passengers and the time of year one travels. Commission staff compiled information on how much the most common fares could rise on each route. Those 18 years and under travel free.

Passenger fares on three routes – Edmonds – Kingston, Seattle – Bremerton, and Seattle – Bainbridge Island – would go up 40 cents each year, for example. The cost for a standard vehicle and driver would rise 70 cents this year and 75 cents next year, according to the data.

Commissioners considered three fare-raising options. One hiked fares 4% across the board and another increased them by 4.5% for vehicles and 3.5% for walk-on passengers. Neither of those changed the multi-ride pass discount.

Members of a ferry advisory committee had pressed for a third approach that would give a greater price break for multi-ride passes. That led to the option embraced by commissioners.

Thursday’s meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the Puget Sound Regional Council Board Room, 1011 Western Ave. Suite 500, in Seattle. Those interested can participate in-person or virtual.

— By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

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