Seattle Business Magazine released a story in its May issue about the funding crisis facing the Washington State Ferry system. The story compares expenses of WSF with the private ferry system serving Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the Massachusetts Steamship Authority. As most islanders probably know, the fares we pay do not cover all operating and capital expenses for WSF. From the article:
“The WSF spends about $10 to transport each passenger. Passengers, on average, pay just $6.60 each. The amount of the subsidy varies considerably, with the heavily used Seattle-Bainbridge service essentially breaking even while fares on the Port Townsend-Whidbey Island route cover less than 38 percent of costs. Services to Vashon Island and the San Juan Islands pay for less than half of their actual operating costs, with total subsidies amounting to $1,610 per island resident annually.
In contrast, the Steamship Authority must cover all its expenses through the farebox:
“The Massachusetts ferry system, which operates independently of the state’s Department of Transportation, covers all its costs from fares, including a replacement fund for new boats. While the Washington system charges $23 to $25.50 for a car and driver going from Seattle to Bainbridge Island and back, in Massachusetts drivers pay $85 to $105 round-trip for a slightly shorter route between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard. Walk-on passengers in Washington pay $7.50 on the Bainbridge run, while in Massachusetts, they pay $16 for a comparable trip.”
What would life be like for ferry-dependent communities if fares were required to cover the full cost of operating and maintaining the ferry system? Are non-island-resident Washingtonians going to continue to see supporting the ferry system as a good deal? What are some long-term funding strategies that would allow the system to continue in its present form? These are the questions that we face, and which we will continue to contend with in the coming years.