Ferry rates to rise despite problems with Kitsap routes

The frustration for Bremerton and Port Orchard ferry riders continues as the State Transportation Commission has approved the Washington State Ferries’ most recent price increases.

That occurred despite pleas from local leaders to consider the still limited Bremerton-Seattle route an exception.

The commission voted unanimously to raise fares 4.25% on all routes for passengers and vehicles, while also increasing the multi-ride discount by 1%. Those rate increases will take place Oct. 1 and again Oct. 1, 2024.

Mayor Greg Wheeler and other local officials had hoped Bremerton might remain exempt from the changes. A July 28 letter from the mayor to the WSTC expresses his frustrations concerning consistent delays in full-service restoration, almost regular delays and a stronger impact on the community than seen in WSF data points.

“As stated by WSF, retirements and other factors impact the projected date of full restoration. Increasing ferry fares during this period will only compound the adversity and financial burden experienced by residents,” Wheeler wrote.

The topic of route equity has typically put an end to these hopes, even while the multi-ride discount for the San Juan Islands route remains significantly higher, an issue brought up by a public commenter.

“I would suggest that that 35% reduction for the San Juans is looking more and more excessive and out of line with all the other routes,” Tom Thiersch said. “35% versus 20% (increasing to 36% and 21%) doesn’t seem particularly equitable, so I would suggest that you consider adjusting those rates to be more equal across the entire system.”

Another citizen, Joe Kunzler, added the rate could be looked down on by the senior community, leading some to wonder if a senior free fare day on a non-peak day could be justified.

The words of the public spoke even louder in surveys and online public forums. For a survey lasting from May 15 to June 9, 3,882 respondents showed a distaste for any fare increase, and good number didn’t even answer a question on a preferred fare increase. The complaints of residents mirrored those of local leadership: poor service levels, lack of state investing and instead relying on the average American, and general disapproval of fare increases.

The Walla Walla ferry has played a major part in such frustrations for Bremerton residents after it ran aground in April off Bainbridge Island at low tide. Since then it has been in and out of service. “I think it is very hard for ferry users today,” WSTC Commissioner Nicole Grant said. “It’s hard to hear how degraded it is, with the service and the vessels and the lack of vessels.”

Another commissioner, Shiv Batra, said this was another chance to remind the state of its responsibility to not rely solely on the backs of the everyday American’s dollars but to use the funds it has to do the right thing. “If no funding is provided by the legislature in the future years, it won’t be too long before we may get the dubious honor of getting 71-72% fare box collection, and that’s not fair for the people who live on the islands.”

The state may not be done worrying about the $28 million gap the rate increase is expected to address as information suggests there could still be a significant hole in the agency’s 2023-25 biennial budget. Current ridership, while steadily improving, is still off pace, a June ridership forecast says, and could potentially only cover $19.3 million of the gap. Depending on how ridership plays out, state officials have not ruled out yet another increase the following year.