Ferry ridership continues to grow, though not at the pace of a year ago.
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 declining riders.”
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 three hours.
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%)