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Is ferry district idea the solution?

Gov. Chris Gregoire presented her proposal Thursday to create a regional ferry district to transfer the state’s responsibility for the financially challenged ferry system.

“We cannot band-aid the system any longer,” said Gregoire. “We cannot continue to run the largest system in America without adequate funding.”

While most elected officials and advisory groups were still trying to analyze the proposal Thursday, many in the West Puget Sound area were hesitant to support it.

According to the governor, the ferry system faces a $900 million shortfall over the next 10 years and will be permanently in the red after the 2011-2013 biennium.

Gregoire is proposing a district composed of nine western Washington counties, each with its own regional taxing authority and a board of directors composed of elected representatives and appointed officials by the governor.

The district would be funded through a state subsidy, fares and a regional taxing authority that negotiates the level of service based on taxes. The district would divorce the ferry system from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“There may be some good ideas, but my initial reaction is this may lead to the balkanization of our transportation system statewide,” said Rep. Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Island resident who represents Position 2 of the 23rd Legislative District.

“There is a lot of reason for the west side of the Puget Sound to be very concerned,” she added. “There are some good ideas we can work with, and I’m not shutting the door on her proposal. But I don’t see it as a winner right now.”

Rolfes said she hasn’t read the details and will have a better idea of her strategy going forward next week.

The state would continue to provide a dedicated subsidy for the system. The state currently provides an average of $93.8 million per biennium.

The state currently provides about 20 percent of the WSF operating budget and provides the capital budget through the 37.5-cent gas tax. The Legislature increased the tax by 9.5 cents in 2005.

The regional taxing authority would be able to dictate fares and taxes depending on level of service. Revenue could be collected through a property or sales tax or other methods.

Gregoire said she envisioned voters would determine the tax and it would be gradually implemented by 2013.

Gregoire said the state has no alternatives due primarily to the repeal (Initiative 695) of the motor vehicle excise tax in 1999, which has resulted in more than $1.2 billion of lost funding.

In the last two years the ferry system has cut its budget by about $28 million each year, including 35 staff positions, but it is still heading into the next biennium with an approximate deficit of $14.7 million, according to Rolfes.

In order to fill that hole, Gregoire is proposing a fare increase of 10 percent and service cuts to all routes except Bainbridge and Kingston, in addition to the $44 million she used from the general transportation resources to bail out the ferry system and the already imposed 2.5 percent fare increase imposed on Jan. 1. Bremerton would lose all service after 9 p.m. and a weekday midday round trip.

“Ten percent is too high, when you start increasing fares you lose ridership and lose money,” said Rolfes. “I am going to work with other legislators to minimize the fare increase and very carefully look at the transportation budget. In revitalizing our economy you can’t just bump all the transportation problems on one geographical part of the state.”

The Bainbridge City Council plans to join the mayor of Bremerton and other Kitsap jurisdictions to write a letter opposing the 2011-2013 proposals.

The ferry advocacy group, Ferry Community Partnership, which helped persuade WSF not to cut services two years ago started an online petition at www.petiononline.com/sosferry and are hoping to collect 20,000 signatures.

The group is meeting on Saturday, Jan. 8 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Port Townsend with representatives from the surrounding area, including Bainbridge.

According to the WSF Route Statement for Fiscal Year 2010 the Bainbridge/Seattle and Kingston/Edmonds are the only routes that make up their operating costs in fares.

Passenger traffic was down by about 188,000 riders in 2010 as compared with 2009, vehicle traffic was up by 30,000, and the Bainbridge route more than paid for itself at a farebox recovery ratio of 104.8% percent. Farebox recovery is the percent of operating expenses paid for by fares.

System-wide farebox recovery improved in 2010 primarily through reduction in management and support, but is still at just 70.5 percent.

The average cost per rider was $9.22 with an average fare recovery of $6.50 requiring a net subsidy of $2.57 per rider.

“If you don’t like my idea I accept that,” said Gregoire. “If not this, then what? The status quo does not work.”

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