2023 Ferry Fare Proposal--Updated

Whatcom County Public Works is proposing an increase to ferry rates to return 2023 to compliance with Whatcom County Code. 

The original fare proposal was released in December 2022 and then vetted through the Lummi Island Ferry Advisory Committee (LIFAC), the Whatcom County Council, Lummi Islanders, and the community for input. We have incorporated that collaborative feedback into the updated proposal. 

Current Reality
Updated Fare Proposal
Summary of Ordinance Changes
Updated Frequently Asked Questions
Additional Frequently Asked Questions
Timeline of Ferry Fares
Link to Relevant Code

UPDATE: See the Public Works PowerPoint Presentation to LIFAC on May 10, 2023. This presentation, made by Randy Rydel, is titled: 'Whatcom County Public Works Discussion Regarding Current Fare Box Reserve Balance.'

Current Reality

Ferry fares have remained largely unchanged over the past decade. In fact, fares have not increased for operational expenses since 2011. At the same time, the cost of running the ferry has risen steadily. As fuel, wage, dry dock, and routine maintenance expenditures climb, ridership patterns and fares have not kept pace to cover the increased costs. 

Based on no change in ridership, the ferry fund deficit will be approximately $545,000 short of meeting 2023 expenses. Without changes to the fare structure, the ferry system will continue to operate in the negative, further growing the deficit and remaining out of compliance with Whatcom County Code.

Updated Fare Proposal

Simply put, we must adjust the ferry fares to reflect the current costs of operating the ferry system. Public Works is required to operate in a 55%/45% farebox recovery model, where the ferry users bear 55% of the operational expenses, and the County taxpayers pay the remainder. 

To regain code compliance and maintain service levels, Whatcom County Public Works is proposing the following updated rate structure: 

Click here for the revised ferry rate proposal

Fare changes reflected in the updated proposal include:

  • A targeted fare increase of 25%, with impact distributed over the most commonly used categories by Islanders.
  • A more significant percentage of fare adjustments assigned to larger trucks and trailers, and the discount for these multi-rides has been deleted. (These punch cards are typically used as a convenience for businesses.)
  • A reduced rate adjustment for needs-based fares, with a continued commitment to give the largest discount to these customers.
  • Multi-ride discounts that are uniformly applied, regardless of the number of punches, except for the convenience-only punch cards for larger trucks and trailers.

This proposal is consistent with the community input and recommendations affirmed by a LIFAC resolution in December 2022. 

See the Public Works PowerPoint Presentation to LIFAC on May 10, 2023. This presentation was titled: 'Whatcom County Public Works Discussion Regarding Current Fare Box Reserve Balance.'

Summary of Ordinance Changes

Whatcom County Public Works is proposing updates to Whatcom County Code Chapter 10.34 in addition to the fare proposal. Sections have been rewritten to provide clarification, clear direction, and accurate and transparent calculation methods. 

Based on community input, these updates include:

  • Clarifying language defining user fees, farebox recovery, and capital & operating expenses.
  • Clarifying the 55% farebox recovery calculation.
  • Reinforcing that the needs-based discount will always be the most significant discount.
  • Allowing valid multi-ride punch cards purchased at the previous rate to be used as credit towards buying the newly-adopted fare multi-ride punch card.
  • Strengthening language that provides for annual reviews and greater transparency for fare adjustments.
  • Adding language to provide a mechanism to allow additional funding mechanisms approved by the county council.

Click here for the updated proposed ordinance language for the 2023 fare proposal.

Updated Frequently Asked Questions

The following frequently asked questions have come up during ongoing fare discussions. These have been added since the original proposal was released. 


Why do fares need to be increased?

This fare adjustment is necessary because operational expenses continue to exceed farebox revenue. With increased operating costs and declines in ridership levels, the current fares don't cover the farebox requirements.  

As a result, we are out of compliance with the Whatcom County Code, which mandates that user feeds fund 55% of operational expenses. We cannot continue to operate out of compliance.  

When will the fare increase take effect?

The proposed ordinance language states that the new fares are effective 60 calendar days after the ordinance is adopted. Therefore, it is anticipated that the fare increase will take effect in late June 2023, subject to Whatcom County Council approval.  

Will there be a second increase in 2024?

The increases in 2023's updated fare proposal won't satisfy the total farebox recovery rate (55%) outlined in Whatcom County Code. Community feedback indicated that a staggered approach to fare increases was easier to absorb. Because the 2023 adjustment does not fully fund expected expenses, if ridership patterns remain the same, an additional boost will likely be needed in 2024. There may be opportunities at that time for peak season pricing and other strategies to leverage ridership and farebox recovery. 

Punch Cards & Discounts

Will there still be multi-ride punch cards?

Yes. We will still offer multi-ride punch card discounts. 

Under the updated proposal, most denominations would change to 10-rides and 20-rides versus the current 10-ride and 25-ride punch cards. 

In addition, the discount structure would be uniformly applied to the most commonly used punch cards.

Will I get a refund for punch cards purchased before the rate change?

The proposed ordinance states, 'multi-ride punch cards purchased prior to the most current fare change are valid for three months after the rate change takes effect.' However, we don't want you to lose your investment should you still have valid punch cards after this time. 

While you will not receive money back for punch cards, multi-ride punch cards purchased at the previous rate can be used as credit towards buying the newly-adopted fare multi-ride punch card. Remember that only multi-ride punch cards valid during this three-month window are allowed to be used as credit. 

Previously, there were no accommodations made when fare rates changed. 

Will there still be needs-based fares? 

Yes, there will still be needs-based fares. The proposed code changes reinforce that this discount will always be the most significant discount applied. 

Operating vs. Capital Expenses

Wasn't the recent dolphin repair a capital expense, not an operating expense?

No. This was a maintenance expense required to operate the ferry safely. It was not new construction but a repair of an existing structure to make it whole. 

Are you raising fares because of the repairs to the ferry dolphins?

No. We must adjust the fares to reflect the rising costs of operating the ferry system. Increases in fuel expenditures, wages, dry dock, and routine maintenance all factor into the decision. 

Were the dolphins repaired to accommodate the new ferry?

No. The current dolphins were repaired to maintain the integrity of the structures and the safety of the passengers and crew. 

What makes up the 'operating costs' for the ferry system?

"Operating cost" means all actual daily running expenses (which include fuel & wages) and all maintenance and administrative expenses associated with using and operating all physical elements of the ferry system.

*This definition is further clarified in the updated ordinance proposal

Will the ferry system be moved to operate under WTA? (Whatcom Transit Authority)

No. Whatcom County has no plans to transfer the operation of the ferry to WTA. 

ARPA Funding

What are 'ARPA Funds,' and how do they factor into this discussion?

'ARPA Funds' are funds received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2011. The Federal Government approved this emergency funding to assist state, local and tribal governments in their response and recovery from the COVID pandemic.

The Whatcom County Council is considering using ARPA funds to cover losses to the Lummi Island Ferry system experienced during the pandemic. 

If ARPA Funds are approved, would a fare adjustment still need to be made?

Yes. Using ARPA funds would help cover the backlog of ferry deficits incurred during the pandemic. However, it does nothing to address the disparity between operating expenses and farebox revenue this year and on an annual basis moving forward. If fares are not adjusted accordingly, we would still be operating at a loss and growing the yearly deficit. 

Regardless of the COVID losses, accounting errors, and money for large maintenance items like the dolphin repairs, the bottom line is that the ferry's annual operating expenses exceed the farebox revenue.  

Getting Involved

How do I follow the discussion and voice my opinion on the updated fare proposal? 

The updated 2023 ferry fare proposal and ordinance language are tentatively scheduled for a public hearing at the Whatcom County Council meeting on April 25, 2023. This is a chance for citizens to voice their opinion on the proposal.

How do I keep up with ongoing discussions about ferry operations? 

The Lummi Island Ferry Advisory Committee provides a forum for those who depend upon the Lummi Island ferry service to voice their ideas and concerns about the ferry service. In-person-only meetings are generally held on the second Wednesday of each month at 6:00 p.m. at the Lummi Island Grange. 

Click here to sign up for email or text messages announcing meetings, agendas, and other information

Ferry Fund

What is the Ferry Fund? 

The Ferry Fund holds all of the ferry operating expenses. Whatcom County's Ferry Fund is fund number 444. 

The Ferry Fund also holds fare box revenue and excess road fund payments. These excess road fund payments are the result of the road fund contributing exactly 45% of the annual expenses, year over year, and not offsetting that contribution with other revenue sources (Ferry Deficit Reimbursement, Interest, and misc.). This results in an excess

When did the Road Fund contribute the $3m of excess contribution? 

Graph: Ferry Fund Balance with Bars Showing Cumulative Fare Box and Road Fund Contribution

The Road Fund started 2006 with $1.5m of excess contribution. From there, the excess contributions continued to accumulate, as shown in the graph above. The table below shows similar data in table form for those who are interested in a different style. 

The data shows each year (aside from 2007 and 2012), the road fund contributed more than was required. These contributions are not part of the fare calculation and have led to the belief that there are plenty of fare box reserves to cover expenses. The table shows how 2014-2019 did have positive reserves from fare box collections, but those reserves were used up and were $986k in deficit by the end of 2022. 

This data also shows that the often mentioned $2m+ surplus at the end of any of the recent years is a surplus of excess Road Fund contributions, not fare collections.

Ferry Calc Used for Presentation

Can't we just use the $3m Road Fund excess loan to cover the deficit? 

First, the Cumulative Fare Box Deficit (spending exceeding annual fare box revenue) has already drawn down this $3m loan to $2m.  

So, it is now a $2m loan sitting as cash in the Ferry Fund. While it technically could be spent, this would cause the Cumulative Fare Box Deficit to dip even further and the payback to be tougher

In 2023, without a fare update, we are eating through the remaining $2m of loaned cash at an estimated rate of $43k per month.

Why keep the excess in the fund?

Historically, the decision has been made to keep the excess in the fund for precisely the situation we are in now, where fare box expense exceeds fare box revenue. It is a common best business practice to keep at least 3-6 months of expenses on hand.

How is the Cumulative Fare Box deficit determined?

To summarize, Cumulative Fare Box Deficit is the dollar amount of Fare Box Covered Expenses that exceed fare box revenue on a cumulative basis. The full definition can be found in Whatcom County Code 10.34. 

How are Fare Box Covered Expenses determined? 

Fare Box Covered Expenses are the Total Operating Expenses, minus the following: Ferry Deficit Reimbursement, Interest, Motor Vehicle Fuel Tax attributable to Ferry Operations, and County employee trips.   All of this is then multiplied by 55% to come up with the total expenses that need to be covered by Fare Box Revenue. 

Additional Frequently Asked Questions

Information in this section was included as a part of the outreach for the original fare proposal. It has been adjusted to reflect the updated fare proposal.  

When did Whatcom County establish the current farebox recovery rate?

The 55% ‘farebox recovery rate’ was established beginning January 1, 2006, with the ordinance codified in Whatcom County Code 10.34.030. The code requires that the system users bear 55% of the operational costs for running the ferry system, and Whatcom County property taxes bear the remaining 45%. 

Alongside this farebox recovery rate, the code mandates an annual review of ferry system services, actual & projected operating costs, and actual & projected revenue from ferry ridership to ensure that fares are set at the correct level to cover 55% of the costs.

What is the farebox ratio for ferry users in Whatcom County? 

The farebox ratio for ferry users is 55%. This means ferry user fee rates must be set to cover 55% of operational costs. Whatcom County property taxpayers cover the remaining 45%. 

What other revenues fund the ferry service besides user fares?

Operating funds are generated through fares, state subsidies, and the Public Works Road Fund. No capital expenses are funded through or included in operations. The Public Works Road Fund and grants pay capital expenditures. 

What are the current ridership patterns? 

Whatcom County Public Works publishes quarterly passenger information on our website. 

Click here to view the ridership data

What is the process for increasing ferry fares?

Whatcom County Public Works informs, educates and collaborates with Lummi Island Ferry Advisory Committee. To pass an ordinance to increase fares, a draft ordinance will be sent from Whatcom County Public Works to the County Council. The ordinance will be introduced on the Council’s calendar and then up for public hearing at the next Council meeting. After public input and discussion, the County Council will vote on whether or not to pass the proposed ordinance changing the fee structure.  

Is this fare increase related to the new sea wall recently completed at the Lummi Island Terminal?

No, the new sea wall (breakwater) was a capital project funded as a capital expenditure. The project was not paid for with operating funds. See the Lummi Island Breakwater Replacement Project page.

Are you increasing fares to fund the new ferry?

No, this fare increase is not funding the new ferry.   This fare increase is to fund the current operating expenses of the Whatcom County ferry system in compliance with the farebox recovery rate outlined in Whatcom County Code 10.34.030

Will I still have to pay the $1 ferry capital surcharge? 

Yes, the $1 ferry capital surcharge remains in effect. Ordinance 2021-147 was approved by the Whatcom County Council on March 23, 2021, establishing a capital surcharge on most ferry fares. This money is used exclusively to purchase a new ferry and modify both terminals. Click here to read more about the capital surcharge.  

Link to Relevant County Code

Read more about Whatcom County Ferry System rates in Chapter 10.34 of the Whatcom County CodeChapter 10.34 is titled Ferry Rates

Published 12/1/22

Updated 02/15/23, 4/5/23