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Focus still on eliminating ferry cuts, fare increases

As conversations swirl over the governor’s controversial ferry district proposal, local legislators say the primary concern is staving off the major ferry service reductions and the 10 percent fare increase still on the table.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, has already said she won’t give Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to create a nine-county regional ferry district a hearing. Politicians from both party lines have declared opposition to the plan to create a ferry system divorced from the state transportation system funded through fares, state subsidy and a regional taxing authority.

Her proposal was separate from the budget proposal she made in December suggesting major service reductions and a fare increase to contend with the $4.6 billion operating budget deficit for the 2011-13 biennium.

“Our bigger concern, which is really more immediate, is the budget discussion surrounding the service cuts,” said Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island. “Most of the ferry legislators are focused more on the short-term and mid-term budget because those cuts are still on the table and the regional ferry district doesn’t have a lot of support.”

Rolfes and other local legislators are focusing their efforts on balancing the transportation budget in a way that doesn’t unfairly penalize the ferry communities. Leaders hope changes to WSF management and labor practices will contain costs and create long-term changes that don’t rely on cuts and fare increases.

WSF is facing a $180 million deficit in its operating budget over the next 10 years and a shortfall of $865 million in its capital program, according to state officials. Gregoire suggested eliminating daily sailings from 505 to 477 on major routes and a 10 percent fare increase.

Substantial service reductions include cuts to night service on the Bremerton run. The Bainbridge Island/Seattle and Kingston/Edmonds ferries were the only routes not slated for service reductions.

Rolfes said she would like WSF to implement more of the Passenger Vehicle Association (PVA) recommendations before cuts. In March 2010, Gregoire asked the PVA to conduct a management review of the ferries division. The PVA convened an industry expert panel, which created a comprehensive list of recommendations to reshape WSF operations.

“I would personally like to see those [recommendations] implemented and used as a counter proposal to what the governor has presented,” said Rolfes.

She said it is too early to determine what position the ferry caucus will take.

The Ferry Advisory Committee Executive Council met on Dec. 10 and strongly opposes any service cuts. The FAC advised that the ferry system as a whole needs to be examined and should be considered an integral part of the highway system as an economic driver for both the communities it serves and the state as a whole.

FAC members stated a modest fare increase of 2.5 percent per year is acceptable and a stable funding source and a capital investment strategy needs to be implemented.

A 2.5 fare increase went into effect on Jan. 1.

Torin Larsen is the chair for the Bainbridge Island FAC and said that the group will meet with the ferry caucus in Olympia and WSF executive management next week to go over details and formulate a more definitive position.

The City Council said it will wait to hear more concrete information and coordinate with other local leaders to communicate through a unified voice.

Mayor Bob Scales proposed writing a cost-saving proposal from the city listing potential revenue sources once some of the smoke has cleared and more facts emerge.

The grassroots organization, Ferry Community Partnership, is already up to some 1,526 signatures on its online petition, which adamantly opposes the reductions in ferry service.

The petition asks WSF to take action in refurbishing the system, provide permanent funding for building vessels, create a sustainable long-term budget and begin building the 144 car vessel in 2012 to provide a replacement or backup boat for aging WSF fleet. The petition is at www.petitiononline.com/sosferry.

The group will be meeting at the Norm Dick’s Government Center in Bremerton on Jan. 15 to finalize their executive summary and talking points to bring to Olympia in February.

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