Washington State Ferries struggle to get walk-ons back after pandemic

Mar 17, 2022, 5:29 AM
In an aerial view, a ferry boat departs as Seattle's 175-foot Great Wheel and the Port of Seattle are seen on the waterfront on March 11, 2022, in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

The state ferry system continues to struggle coming out of the pandemic, especially with walk-on passengers, and it could be another year before it gets back to “normal” for its sailing schedule.

Toll revenues still haven’t recovered, despite more commuters on the roads

Ridership was already falling across the system before COVID hit, and the pandemic only made it worse.

2019 was the first year with Kitsap Transit fast ferry sailings from Bremerton and Bainbridge Island, Colman Dock was a mess because of construction, and there were some bad storms early in the year that left a lasting mark on ridership.

As we’ve talked about before, passenger service cratered in 2020. It did see an uptick last year, but the current numbers are still off the pre-pandemic numbers. Ridership is down 28% overall from 2019.

The ferry system’s finance director, Rick Singer, told the Washington State Transportation Commission that it’s the daily commuting walk-on passengers that have just disappeared.

“For the last 20 years, those passenger multi-riders, our commuters, have been falling off steadily,” he said. “They totally dropped out almost completely during the pandemic.”

And Singer doesn’t know if they will ever return to pre-COVID levels.

What about the sailing schedule?

Singer said it will be July 2023 before service returns to previous levels.

“We are assuming a more conservative return to a new normal, whatever that new normal might look like,” he said.

One unusual thing the ferry service is looking into, coming out of the pandemic, is why there has been a significant increase in the number of discounted youth passes being sold. Singer is concerned that people are trying to cheat the system now that you don’t have to show proof of age to get a youth pass.

“If you wanted to buy a youth discount fare, you had to present yourself to a human body,” Singer said.  “In order to make things a little more efficient during the pandemic, we started selling those youth discounts at our machines.”

You can save more than half the adult fare by opting for a youth fare at those kiosks.

“Does that reflect an increase in youth traveling, or does that represent some fare leakage of people purchasing youth passes that aren’t technically qualified?” Singer asked. “That’s something we’re going to have to watch going forward a little closer.”

This might become a moot point in the coming months. The Move Ahead Washington transportation package passed by the state Legislature last week provides free transit for anyone under 18, and that includes the ferry system.

At that point, the ferry system will have to have some sort of age verification system.

“We’re going to have to move to something like that. If that means some additional operating expenses, we’ll have to see how that shakes out,” Singer said.

Eliminating youth fares is expected to cost the ferry system about $2 million, but the transportation package secured funding to backfill those losses.

Speaking of losses, Singer said the bottom line doesn’t look so rosy for the next few years, with a forecasted loss of more than $22 million at the fare box through 2023 and over $5 million through 2025.

But Singer does expect to see some increases in revenue from other sources, especially from the galleys. The ferries are slowing going to return service to the galleys on the most-used routes over the next few months.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.


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Washington State Ferries struggle to get walk-ons back after pandemic