Officials mulling varied strategies to keep WSF afloat

Washington State Ferries is the largest ferry system in the United States, carrying 24 million passengers a year, but the heavily used marine highways could be in jeopardy.

David Moseley, the state Department of Transportation assistant secretary for the ferries division, told Bremerton City Council Wednesday that the current ferry system “is not financially sustainable.”

Moseley said the loss of the motor vehicle excise tax in 2000 as a source of funding really hurt Washington’s ferry system. The tax represented 22 percent of the ferries’ operations budget and 39 percent of its capital budget.

“As a result, the system is not financially sustainable today and will not be financially sustainable in the future,” Moseley said.

Despite raising fares, the money has not been replaced, leaving the ferry system in a pinch.

After looking toward ferry systems worldwide for ideas, Moseley said the ferries division is currently looking at nine different strategies to present to the state Legislature in 2009 in hopes of easing the financial woes.

“I think the ’09 session is a really key legislative session for the ferries system,” Moseley said.

The top three topics are pricing, reservations and transit access enhancements, according to Moseley.

He said officials are considering raising ferry prices during peak and congested periods. On the flip side, he said the ferry system is looking at offering discounted fares during off-peak periods.

“Congestion pricing is pretty standard for transit agencies,” Moseley said.

The second strategy, reservation systems, could deal with the vehicle congestion problem.

A vehicle reservation system could eliminate the long lines of vehicles waiting to board ferries. Moseley said 70 percent of a sailing could be reserved 30 days before the scheduled sailing or two-and-a-half hours before boarding the vessel. Reservations could be made at automated walk-up kiosks, via telephone or online.

The Port Townsend-Keystone route currently uses a vehicle reservation system and Moseley said it seems to be working well.

“The reports that we get are very favorable. I think early signs from the experiment are pretty positive,” he said. “I’m hopeful that the reservation system can be useful to us.”

Moseley said improving mass transit access at ferry terminals also could make riding ferries easier. He added that Kitsap Transit is a good supporter of the state ferry system.

“I’m hopeful that this is another area we could work on,” Moseley said.

Other strategies officials are considering include improving fare collections; improving pedestrian and bicycle connections and facilities; enhancing user information; promoting carpooling and other non-single occupancy vehicles; better management of traffic and dock space; and improving parking and holding options.

“We’re looking at all of those ways to make our operations better,” Moseley said.

“I think there’s a lot of good ideas here,” said Bremerton City Council President Will Maupin.

Council members asked Moseley about the possibility of foot ferries running from Bremerton to Seattle. The ferry system is part of the state highway system and state law says passenger ferries are considered transit and not a part of the highways; therefore, passenger ferries do not fall under the state’s umbrella.

“We think passenger-only ferries are a transit system and should be funded like a transit system,” Maupin said.

Moseley said the revised long-range plan for the ferry system is scheduled to be completed by December.

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