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Washington youth will soon ride ferries free, costing the state $2M

Washingtonians 18 and under soon won’t have to pay to use public transit, including the ferry system.

Implementing that policy – part of the “Move Ahead Washington” transportation package passed by the state Legislature earlier this year – will take some work, the Washington State Transportation Commission learned. That includes dealing with the fact that eliminating youth fares is expected to cost the ferry system about $2 million a year.

“Of course there is a revenue impact when you allow a segment of your ridership to go free,” said Rick Singer, Washington State Ferries (WSF) finance and administration director, during Wednesday morning’s virtual meeting on the second day of a two-day gathering of the WSTC.

An estimated $1.6 million to $2.2 million per year is needed to fund the exemption, with $32 million appropriated to fund the loss of fares over the 16-year period from the nearly $17 billion “Move Ahead Washington” package.

The Legislature also appropriated $600,000 for the 2021-2023 biennium.

“The 600,000 – if you do the math, it may not be all we need – but again it’ll be dependent on our ridership counts,” Singer explained. “But we feel confident it will certainly cover our needs to get rolling here.”

According to a December 2021 performance report reflecting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, in fiscal year 2021, WSF carried more than 15.3 million riders, consisting of 6.9 million passengers and 8.4 million vehicles/drivers.

Ridership was down from 19.4 million riders in fiscal year 2020 when WSF carried more than 10.4 million passengers and 9 million vehicles/drivers.

Also needed to get fare exemptions rolling: a system for confirming ages.

Singer said the ferry system will be working with the “One Regional Card for All” – known as ORCA – program used on transit throughout the Puget Sound region, possibly including requesting ORCA Youth Cards, school-issued identification, and/or state-issued identifications/driver’s licenses.

“There are some implementation considerations, and of course this goes well beyond Washington State Ferries, so we have been working closely with our ORCA partners to come up with a region-wide policy, especially with regard to age verification,” Singer said.

Age also figures into a proposed change to the Washington Administrative Code regarding the youth fare exemption on ferry rides.

“So, in order to implement this exemption, it’s honestly really a quite simple change that needs to be made within our current WAC policy structure,” said Aaron Halbert, a financial analyst with the WSTC.

Current policy language of WAC 486-300-010 on ferry passenger tolls reads, “CHILDREN/YOUTH – Children under six years of age will be carried free when accompanied by a parent or guardian. Children/youth six through eighteen years of age will be charged the youth fare, which will be 50% of full fare rounded down to the nearest multiple of $0.05.”

The proposed policy language: “CHILDREN/YOUTH – Children/youth passengers eighteen years and under will ride free of charge on all system routes.”

Halbert noted that grouping all those 18 and younger under the same age bracket for pricing purposes was a simpler way to proceed and was requested by WSF.

He explained it would not result in unaccompanied children 6 and under riding the state’s ferries.

“I’ll note that [Washington State] Ferries is able to implement their own operational, you know, WAC directives,” Halbert said, going on to note that “Ferries would have the ability to draft up some WAC language on their end that would require parent or guardian accompanying them [children 6 and under] onto the ferry.”

Singer was confident implementing the youth fare exemptions would go smoothly.

“Technically, this is very feasible to implement,” he said. “We don’t see any major hang-ups in making this schedule by October 1.”

October 1 is when the 18 and under fare policy goes into effect.

Because the Legislature has explicitly directed the WSTC on this fare exemption, the policy can be implemented through the CR-105 expediting rule making form from the state Office of the Code Reviser.

That will shave one to two months off the time it would otherwise take to implement the exemption, Singer said, and doesn’t require any public review or comment.

“That’s where we’re at,” he concluded. “We think we’re well poised to get this knocked out, and we can make it happen.”

Singer’s optimistic appraisal of the situation was in stark contrast to a KIRO report at the end of March in which several transit agency officials, including WSF spokesman Ian Sterling, expressed concern about implementing the fare exemption by the start of October.

“The honest answer is we don’t know how we’re going to do it,” Sterling said at the time.

This article was originally posted on Washington youth will soon ride ferries free, costing the state $2M

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