Ferry ridership up, but what if there hadn’t been fare increases

Larry Steagall / Kitsap Sun Lots of big boats, including two ferries and a cruise ship, accent the Seattle scene this weekend under bright skies. Expect more picturesque days this week as forecasts call for sunny skies and highs in the 70s.

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.

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%)

7 thoughts on “Ferry ridership up, but what if there hadn’t been fare increases

  1. I still find it interesting to note that whenever fares go up, it’s because of “the cost of operating the ferries”. I assume that means the cost of fuel, as well. But I noticed when gas prices took a nose dive, ferry rates continued to go up instead of down, certainly not reflecting what should have been lowered operating costs.

    Whatever. As long as it costs almost $40 to go round trip in a car on the ferry, I’ll continue to drive around.

    As for going over without a car, I understand the New York ferries that run between Staten Island and Manhattan are free (they don’t take cars, though), and the ferries depart every half hour around the clock. Makes you wonder what we’re doing wrong here in Washington state.

    1. Fuel is roughly 1/3 of their operating costs. And there are capital improvements they need to pay for too. So fuel is a factor, but not the majority of their costs. And if you drive onto the ferry every day, or frequently enough to buy a multi-ride card, it’s $23 round trip. If you need to pay to park in Seattle, it’s more expensive to drive around then it is to ride the ferry. And even though the Staten Island ferries are free, they still cost money to operate. So what Washington State is doing wrong is not finding a stable and dedicated revenue source (other than fares) to pay for the ferry system.

      1. Yes, they haven’t found anything in 16 years to replace the MVET (license tab fees) they used to get. They got money from the transportation revenue package last year for 8 years, but then they’ll be looking for something else. That’s just to cover the money they’ve been having to pull from other transportation pots. Riders are still be expected to pay more than 70 percent and that’s not going to change. It’s just where they can get the other 30 percent. Lower fuel costs definitely help. They’ve been adding bigger, new boats and they need bigger crews, which costs.

    2. Lower fuel prices are huge for the ferries. There are higher labor costs, however, with the new, bigger ferries. They take more crew. I don’t think we can ever expect fares to go down. Driving around is awful. You have to pick your poison, I guess. Sorry. No good answer.

  2. It will be interesting to see if ridership declines as long term ferry commuters retire. The departure of the masses is in progress as indicated by transit companies of late having trouble replacing employees. Will there be a shift from everyone going to the tech world returning to jobs such as buss drivers and ferry employees. More apprenticeship style jobs than instant tech jobs. It is a world where the majority want to start at the top instead of working their way up through apprenticeships. Time will tell.

  3. Evan, I go over to Seattle maybe once or twice a year. I am currently living on less than $200/month of state disability so to me, the round trip by car on the ferry is a HUGE waste of money.

    So far driving around has only taken me a little longer than taking the ferry. And if you have to pay to park, it costs just as much if you take your car over, more even than if you drive around with gas as cheap as it is these days.

    I do my best to ensure that I drive during non-commute hours, and yes, I have been caught in one or two backups. But at the same time, I have also been a foot passenger on the ferry when I worked in Seattle and have experienced the ferry breakdowns and delays then, too.

    Then there’s also the frustration of planning to take your car on the ferry and finding out the ferry is full. At that point, why wait an extra hour for the next ferry when you can drive around in practically the same amount of time?

    These are the things that make rely, and continue to rely, on my car as transportation, instead of the ferries.

  4. Ridership will also increase when Seattle finished the seawall, and thus the access to the ferry. Perhaps then the ferry system will provide some signage for people wanting taxis, bus route locations, straight forward access to the stadiums. Convenience for walk on passengers is important.

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