Ferry ridership continues to grow, though not at the pace of a
During the past quarter ending June 30, Washington State Ferries
carried 1.4 percent more people than in the same period last year.
Passengers were up 1.9 percent jump, drivers just 0.8 percent.
Planner Ray Deardorf in January predicted, based on traffic
forecasts, that the boats would tail off from their 2.9 percent
jump in 2015. He expected growth of 0.5 to 1 percent per year.
“I’m certainly not disappointed in a 1.4 percent increase,” he
said, “especially looking back a few years when we were seeing
They lost riders because they cranked up ticket prices, some
years by 20 percent, after losing a major revenue source — license
tabs — in 2000. After fare increases stabilized at about 2.5
percent a year, ridership hit bottom in 2012 and has climbed the
past three years.
How far can it go?
We’re 3 million away from the peak of 26.8 million in 1999. That
should be reachable. The population has boomed since then. Eight
new boats have replaced smaller ones, or will in the near future.
There’s room on the ferries, though you wouldn’t know it at
Kingston on a Sunday afternoon. Three-hour waits are not uncommon.
People actually sit in their cars on the side of the highway for
There’s a huge westward flush on Friday, a back flow east on
Sunday. Boats are packed with workers an hour or two each weekday
morning and evening, but most of the time there’s space. It’s just
that most people have inflexible schedules that are pretty similar.
It’d be nice if the crowds could be spread out, or have more
sailings during peak times and fewer when it’s not busy. That would
probably require peak-time pricing, or more boats, bigger docks and
a lot more money.
I don’t foresee those busy times changing. You avoid them when
possible, otherwise that’s just part of riding the ferries.
Before the whole funding mess started, ferry trips were the best
deal going. Now the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
In 1999, a round-trip passenger ticket cost $1.85.
Car-and-driver fare was $6.50 each way. If accounting just for
inflation, those prices would be $2.59 and $9.10 today. That
doesn’t even seem possible. I wonder what ridership would be at
those prices. Instead, after a decade of exaggerated fare hikes,
they’re $8.20 and $14.60 (we won’t count the peak-season
surcharge). Four bucks each way to walk on still seems reasonable.
Taking a car is getting to expensive for many people.
Ticket revenue paid for about 60 percent of operating costs back
when prices were so low. Now it’s at about 73 percent.
I’ve heard people say if tickets cost less, more people would
ride and they’d make more money. It doesn’t work that way. Yes,
fare hikes do cost them riders, but not enough so they don’t pay
off. They would make no sense otherwise. There does come a point
where prices are so high that they lose so many riders that they
begin losing money, but it’s out there a ways.
Back to the quarterly numbers, locally, Bremerton (-4.3
percent), Bainbridge Island (-1.9 percent) and Southworth (-1.5
percent) all lost vehicle traffic compared to last year. Only
Kingston, at 0.7 percent, grew. Part of the reason could be the
disaster of trying to drive near Seattle’s Colman Dock.
WSF’s Deardorf also noted the numbers might indicate a
decade-long decline of commuters might be bottoming out.
RIDERS SINCE LOSS OF MVET
1999 — 26,821,231
2000 — 26,701,706 (-0.4%)
2001 — 26,109,530 (-2.2%)
2002 — 25,141,467 (-3.7%)
2003 — 24,376,276 (-3.0%)
2004 — 24,092,336 (-1.2%)
2005 — 23,817,366 (-1.1%)
2006 — 23,937,546 (0.5%)
2007 — 23,709,097 (-1.2%)
2008 — 22,732,794 (-4.1%)
2009 — 22,737,710 (0.0%)
2010 — 22,451,404 (-1.3%)
2011 — 22.230,041 (-1.2%)
2012 — 22,201,496 (-0.1%)
2013 — 22,537,029 (1.5%)
2014 — 23,193,660 (2.7%)
2015 — 23,882,327 (2.9%)