This was originally posted to: Guemes Island Ferry Committee

A Pilot Program For Needs-Based Ferry Punchcards

A Pilot Program For Needs-Based Ferry Punchcards

A White Paper Addressing Aspects of Ferry Replacement Planning

In the next years Skagit County’s Ferry Replacement Project plans to commit a lot of money to replacing the noble but aging M/V Guemes.  One way or another part of the cost will be met by ferry patrons.  Already a surcharge is in place for this, or its successor, purpose.  Many on Guemes Island have expressed concern about the impact this will have on low-income island families, particularly families who have lived on Guemes for many years and small businesses that depend on the ferry. 


There is a strongly expressed need that tickets and other ferry-related costs not render it unaffordable to continue to live on Guemes, particularly for long-time residents, families, and small businesses.  This paper describes a Pilot Program to begin meeting that need. 

Guemes’s long history includes, of course, some spectacular homes and areas of wealth.  But the Island’s values and community have evolved much more from the small farm, small business, and beach cabin setting that has characterized development since Native American control of the island was ended.  There are always folks on the margins of these groups that find themselves already strained as ferry fares and property values, and thus taxes, increase on the island.

Meeting the need is complicated by the fact that the values it expresses – including community, friendships, small business investments, family history, diversity – often do not show up on balance sheets or public financing plans.  These values are difficult to incorporate into the types of financial analyses involved in the Ferry Replacement Project.  

Skagit County is of course not the first jurisdiction to face this challenge.  In fact, in a very similar situation Whatcom County has addressed the need in the context of that county’s own ferry operation.  Whatcom’s program warrants serious consideration in the context of Skagit County’s Ferry Replacement Project.


Here we use the term Pilot Program because we expect the program may mature and change as information specific to Skagit County is gathered.  The Whatcom County program is rather simple and direct.  It provides a fare discount for people whose low income qualifies them for relief from full ferry fares.  (The Whatcom discount is the same for elders, disabled patrons, or these low income, means-tested patrons.  Only the means-tested patrons are discussed here.)  The Whatcom program is discussed here as a model for a Pilot Program in Skagit County.  


Whatcom:  Eligibility criteria are borrowed from Whatcom County’s energy assistance program.  A copy of Whatcom’s Needs-Based Application is attached here.

Income guidelines for this purpose are promulgated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  This information is quite readily available on a county basis at  Whatcom County sets its eligibility threshold at 50% of the “area median income.”

For example, in Whatcom County a family of four making less than $38,050 would be eligible.  

Skagit:  Similar income guidelines from the same source are proposed for use here.  We use the HUD User FY 2017 Income Limits Documentation System Summary (copy attached) choosing the “Very Low (50%) Income Limits.”  For Skagit County a family of four would qualify it its income is less than $33,150.

Qualification and Administration

There are two ways to qualify for the pilot program:

Method 1: People enrolled in the County Assessor’s property tax discount program provided at RCW 84.36 are automatically qualified for the ferry fare discount.  They must come to the Continental Place offices where designated ferry personnel will look up the applicant’s enrollment and certify their eligibility. 

Method 2: Applicants must come in person to the Community Action of Skagit County offices to apply.1  Income for the last three months is considered.  It is documentable by bank statements, pay stubs, employer printouts, a letter from the Washington Department of Social and Health Services (if the applicant gets services from DSHS).  Cash and savings are not considered.  Self-declaration is permitted where necessary.

Either Method results in a qualified applicant being given a voucher they will use to obtain a discounted punchcard from Public Works staff at 1800 Continental Place, Mt. Vernon. Or, the punch cards could be purchased by mail for those who do not wish to come over to Mt. Vernon. They would need to enclose a copy of their voucher with their punch card order form.

The voucher is good for one year.

To avoid stigmatization or humiliation the punchcards will not be of a different appearance than ordinary punchcards.  Voucher holders can obtain punchcards using the existing mail system if they want to maximize their privacy by not involving ferry crew personnel.

Whatcom’s experience is that the process takes 30 to 45 minutes. There have been no reports of abuse or fraud at Whatcom. 

Whatcom Opportunity Council is paid $50 per applicant whether the applicant qualifies or not.  The same is proposed here for Skagit Community Action.

Participant Numbers and Overall Cost Estimate

Whatcom:  There are about 37 vouchers issued in 2017 for in the Whatcom program.  Two other estimates have been offered verbally:  (i) About 7% of the 900 or so households of Lummi Island participate, or roughly 63 households.  (ii) Another estimate has about 30 households participating.  To be sure, this is a 50% disparity, but these are useful ballpark figures for our purposes, and specific ticket numbers are as follows. 

In 2017 Whatcom’s program issued:
257 pedestrian punchcards (10 rides each) = 2570 rides, and
692 vehicular punchcards (10 rides each) = 6920 rides.                               

The overall cost in the Whatcom program in 2017 was $23,994.  A breakdown of the cost by type of discounted punchcard is attached here.

Skagit:  Here we use available data to estimate the number of Guemes residents that could qualify for the Pilot Program.

According to the Skagit County Assessor’s Office there are 25 households on Guemes that are enrolled in the property tax exemption program, 20 of which would be qualified for a discounted fare under this Pilot Program.  (The other 5 households exceed the Pilot Program income level.)

Another estimate can be derived by comparing and prorating the discounted rides provided to Lummi Island’s 900 permanent residents with Guemes’s 700 permanent residents. Guemes figures would be 7/9ths of Lummi’s, or 78%.  Applying Guemes’s rates:

Pedestrians:  2570 Lummi rides x 78% = 2005 Guemes rides.  At 25 rides/punchcard = 80 punchcards.

50% discount from $87 base cost = $43.50.  80 punchcards x $43.50 discount = $3,480

Vehicles:  6920 Lummi rides x 78% = 5398 Guemes rides.  At 20 rides/punchcard = 270 punchcards.

50% discount from $205 base cost = $102.50.  270 punchcards x $102.50 discount = $27,675 2

This estimate totals $31,155/year for the Guemes Pilot Program. (In addition, something should be added to compensate Community Action for its work.  Assuming qualification documents are good for a year and Community Action gets $50 for each qualifier, this would amount to about 7/9 of Whatcom’s 37 punchcards x $50 or $1,438.)  This is bigger than the Whatcom program cost primarily because of a deeper discount in the Guemes Pilot Program.

How will the program be paid for?

This program might result in reduced Fare Box receipts if current punchcard users switch to the discounted punchcards.  Or the program might result in increased Fare Box receipts if ferry patrons who currently avoid trips because of cost now begin using discounted punchcards.  Or some blend of those two possibilities might emerge.

In any event, the cost of the program can be absorbed and accounted for using existing methods per Resolution 2010-0050.  In a worst case scenario accumulating Fare Box shortages could add, over time, to the need for fare increases.

Alternatively, with the County engaged in an over $20million project, the cost of this program is a relatively small matter.  Its incorporation into the financing of the new ferry project should be considered and would be an appropriate response to the real community impacts of the County’s project.


A program of needs-based fare discounts for low income Guemes Islanders is desirable and its implementation is demonstrably achievable.  The Whatcom County experience supports consideration of a similar program at Skagit County. 3

Comments to Bud Ullman at by January 8, 2019, please/thanks.

1. Community Action of Skagit County has generously agreed to provide this vetting process; it has experience with such work in qualifying citizens for, for example, home heating assistance.

2. These discounts will be lessened to the extend qualified individuals also qualify for senior/disabled/youth fares whose base costs are less.

3. Sincere thanks to Lorena Shah at Whatcom Opportunity Council, Chantelle Hilsinger ferry manager at Whatcom County, and Lynn Christofersen at Community Action of Skagit County for providing information for this proposal.