Ferry system to upgrade, expand reservations starting this summer

by Scott Panitz, Reporter

WNPA Olympia News Bureau


In the first phase of a plan to expand and upgrade its reservation program, Washington State Ferries launches a new vehicle reservation system this June for the Port Townsend/Coupeville and Anacortes/Sidney, B.C. routes, as well as commercial routes in the San Juan Islands.

The reservation system is scheduled to expand in two more phases to the general San Juan Islands routes in 2014 and the Central Puget Sound routes in 2016, pending successful implementation and funding approval.

The new system would be an improvement over the antiquated one the ferries use now, officials claim.

WSF Deputy Chief of Operations and Construction Capt. George Capacci said that the new system would make the reservation process both simple and reliable.

"You can pick the route, tell us how big the vehicle is, how many people, and end up making that reservation," he said. "We collect the deposit online and you pay the remainder when you show up at the terminal."

According to Capacci, who is also the Project Director for the Vehicle Reservations Program, the new online interface is more user-friendly than the current one and requires the payment of a deposit during the registration process.

The deposit is essentially a down-payment — a portion of the fare paid at the time of the reservation.  Upon arrival at a terminal, about 30 minutes before scheduled sailings, drivers redeem their reservations and pay the balance of their fares. The exact price of the deposit has not been finalized, but it would likely be set at the lowest possible fare at a given time in order to minimize the chance of overcharging, said Capacci.

Ferry officials believe the institution of a deposit should curb no-shows, who pose the greatest problem for the current reservation system that calls for no advance payment.

“They’re a big problem up at Port Townsend/Coupeville because we don’t charge a deposit on our reservation,” said Susan Harris, WSF Senior Programs Manager of Customer Communications.

Harris said that since the WSF began taking reservations for the Port Townsend/Coupeville route in May 2008, there have been significantly more no-shows than on the route to Canada, which requires a deposit.

“Reservations were being made that weren’t being kept, so those who wanted to make the reservations couldn’t because they were all taken,” said Port Townsend Ferry Advisory Committee Chair Tim Caldwell.  “So now, when a reservation is made, it’s going to be a realistic reservation.”

Said Capacci, “What does change is convenience and predictability for our customers. A deposit ensures compliance. If you have some skin in the game, you are more likely to show up for your reservation, which increases our predictability and [the customer’s] flexibility and predictability.”

This helps commuters who need to get to work during peak time each morning avoid being late due to a missed ferry.  It also aids travelers who want to avoid long lines at the terminals and extended periods inside their vehicles.

Port Townsend resident and ferry-rider Mary Obee said that the reservation system so far has been “just a dream.”  She commutes daily between her home and the classroom on Whidbey Island where she teaches.

“As a passenger, I’ve had a great experience,” she said.  “It reduces the amount of stress.  I’m guaranteed a spot.”

The reservation system is part of the state’s plan to make Washington State Ferries a more cost-effective entity.

The vehicle-reservation system manages demand cheaply and saves the state a projected $280 million, WSF officials reveal.  WSF officials had previously thought it would need hefty funding to expand terminals and build new holding areas to meet future demand.  Instead, they have turned to a demand-management model intended to streamline the ferry-riding process.

“We have taken the philosophy here at Washington State Ferries to change from an asset management plan – build bigger boats, build bigger ships, build bigger terminals to put as many passengers on the vessels as possible,” Capacci said. “That’s not possible in today’s world.  I can’t just build bigger ships, you can’t build bigger docks to put more cars on.  So what you have to do is manage the demand.”

The Legislature has allocated $5,851,000 for the first phase and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10th District), chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said she is optimistic about the reservation system succeeding.  She predicts ridership would increase if people know they won’t be stuck in hours-long lines.

“I think that the reservation system will help pay for itself,” said the senator, whose district includes Whidbey Island ferry terminals at Coupeville and Clinton.  “We found money to do this first phase and we’re going to work real hard to find the money for the next phases too. We feel it’s a very integral part of improving this system.”


New fare payment structure

A study to determine fare payment and processing options for Washington State Ferries patrons was unveiled during the Washington State Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee members Jan. 4.

The study recommends that the ferry system replace its current prepaid Wave2Go payment option with an account-based system where patrons would be able to use different payment options through Good To Go! and One Regional Card for All (ORCA) cards.

Good To Go! is currently not offered by the ferry system as a payment option.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Good To Go! is an electronic tolling system currently being implemented on Washington’s SR 520 Bridge, the SR 167 HOT Lanes and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Drivers with Good To Go! have a prepaid account, and when they drive through a tolled facility, an electronic device scans their Good To Go! pass and the toll is automatically deducted from their account.

According to the ORCA website, ORCA cards can be used on ferries, trains, rails or buses. ORCA card holders can add value to their cards by phone or online and when they commute, they scan their ORCA cards at card readers or turnstiles and the fare is deducted from their account.

Kathy Scanlan of the Cedar River Group, who helped conduct the study that began last August, said the account-based system would merge with the ferry reservation system by 2018, if the recommendation is accepted.

The reservation system would be first implemented on the Port Townsend-Coupeville and Anacortes-San Juan-Sidney routes. If the system is successful on those routes, and the legislature approves funding for expansion for 2014 and 2016, the reservation system would expand to most of the other routes, excluding the Southworth-Vashon-Fauntleroy, Mukilteo-Clinton and Point Defiance-Tahlequah routes. The study determined these routes could not support a reservation system, but would allow use of the GoodToGo! pass structure.

Before the account-based system is implemented, the study recommends that the ferry system create an interface that allows the ORCA and the Wave2Go systems to work integrate. The study recommends that Washington State Ferries allow passengers to purchase and load their multi-ride cards, which they can purchase through Wave2Go, on their ORCA cards.

According to the study, the cost of integrating the two systems is $300,000.

The study also recommends that the ferry system allow the Good To Go! pass on the ferries. The cost of implementing Good To Go! as a payment method, according to the study, is $2.2 million.

The Joint Transportation Committee has yet to accept the recommendations.

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