The Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC), which sets fare rates for WSF, landed on a final version of planned fare increases at a hearing Tuesday. The short version: Starting October 1, fares will go up 2.5 percent for vehicles and 2 percent for passengers. In May, fares go up another 2.5 percent for vehicles and 2 percent for passengers, but with an extra 25-cent surcharge added to fund construction of new vehicles—an increase to the existing 25-cent capital surcharge.
Each ferry route has its own fare schedule, so the final increased fare amount will depend on mode of travel, age, whether the passenger has a pass or punchcard, and other variables.
Along with the increases, WSF is testing a couple of mitigations. Assuming the Washington State Legislature approves funding and the WSTC gives the green light, WSF will give low-income fares a try. While discounted fares like this are common in the rest of the Puget Sound transportation landscape—including the lower-cost, smaller King County Water Taxi ferry system—such a program doesn’t exist yet for the state ferry system.
WSF also intends to test how Good to Go! passes, which collect tolls on roadways like the 405 toll lanes (and soon, the State Route 99 tunnel), could be used for paying ferry fares. It’s not uncommon to implement special rates for participation in the program—at some times of day, using a pass instead of pay-by-mail cuts 520 bridge tolls by more than half. Both pilots could run for up to three years, pending the necessary approvals.
The fare increases come after a mandate from the Washington State Legislature to raise more revenue—and a long-term effort to reduce the ferries’ dramatic impact on the environment. The 2019-2021 state transportation budget passed by the legislature requires that the state ferry system raise an extra $9.6 million in revenue, hence the percentage increases. The budget also approved the purchase of a new hybrid-electric vessel, comparable in size to some of the biggest boats in the fleet, but requires the increase in the capital surcharge to do so.
Hybrid conversion has become a priority for the ferry system. A decade ago, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which oversees WSF, took stock of its greenhouse gas emissions, and its largest source by a landslide was the ferry system, at about 70 percent. In addition to acquiring a new, greener vehicle, WSF is currently working on hybrid conversions, too (h/t Seattle Transit Blog), and the state budget sets aside some extra funding to work on converting two of its Jumbo Mark II vessels—the largest in the fleet—and setting up an electric ferry planning team.
While the rates are going up due to a particular set of circumstances, it’s notable that as transit systems go, the Washington State Ferries have an incredible farebox recovery rate—an industry term for how much of a system’s operating costs are covered by passenger fares. Typically, fares don’t even make up half of it: King County Metro operated at about 27 percent in 2017, and Sound Transit Link Light Rail is about 40 percent, both numbers higher than typical for their transit type.
The ferry system, meanwhile, had a farebox recovery rate of a whopping 73 percent in 2018. For context, a 2016 Federal Transportation Administration report found that the typical ferryboat rate is less than 30 percent.