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Low return to office rate in Seattle is affecting Washington ferry ridership

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(The Center Square) – Ferry ridership in the Puget Sound has dipped during the peak season of summer in recent years, signaling a lack of workers returning to Seattle offices.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average number of monthly Washington ferry boardings from May through September went from approximately 1.8 million in 2021 to 1.7 million in 2022. Data for ferry ridership in July 2023 was unavailable, but the average monthly rate of boardings between May and June of this year is around 1.7 million as well.

In comparison, the average number of monthly Washington ferry boardings during summer 2019 was 2.3 million.

Statistics indicate that Washington state’s ferry system has more boardings during the summer months when more tourists visit Seattle. Winter months are usually slow even before the COVID-19 pandemic, as mainly commuters from other Puget Sound islands and towns travel to and from Seattle.

Washington State Department of Transportation Public Information Officer Ian Sterling said the ridership rates reflect the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“Some takeaways are that walk-on commuters are down as many continue to work from home while tourism riders appear to be up on popular routes,” Sterling said to The Center Square in an email.

This correlates with Seattle’s rate of workers returning to offices in the downtown area. The latest data from the Downtown Seattle Association shows that from June through July 2023, 55% of worker traffic has returned compared to 2019.

Fare revenue generated by the ferries have dropped considerably as a result of the lack of boardings. The Washington State Department of Transportation’s system-wide farebox recovery increased 1.4% from 2021 to 2022. The department reported in its 2022 fiscal statement that as COVID-19 restrictions eased, total ridership increased 11.9% from the 2021 fiscal year, after dropping 21% in 2021 from 2020.

Between the 2022 and 2021 fiscal years, passenger ridership increased 23.7% and vehicle ridership rose 2.3%, which resulted in an increase of $11.4 million in farebox revenue (7.5%) from 2021.

The Center Square previously reported on the Washington State Transportation Commission voting to increase fares for Washington State Ferries this fall. Both passenger and vehicle fares will increase 4.3% on Oct. 1 of this year. On Oct. 1, 2024, the prices will again go up by 4.3%. The increase is meant to cover a projected $28 million gap in operating expenses over the next two years as a result of decreased fare revenues and less state and federal funding.

Another West Coast tech hub is struggling to have workers return to its downtown core. San Francisco’s average office attendance has been consistently under 50% of its pre-pandemic rate, according to the City of San Francisco. The latest recorded week of July 5 showed workers were in their offices at 33% of 2019 levels, the lowest in all of 2023.

San Francisco’s ferry system is also witnessing a significant drop in ridership since the pandemic. From May-September 2019, the average monthly ridership in San Francisco’s ferry system was approximately 231,916. It dropped to 35,904 in summer 2021, then increased to 111,782 in summer 2022, which was 52% lower than 2019 summer ridership levels.

Recent data indicates ridership trends are increasing. Through May and June of 2023, San Francisco’s ferry system ridership averaged 126,675 monthly boardings.

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