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No clear answers for burdened ferry system

The fate of the ferry system is buried deep in discussion, and local representatives say no easy path will emerge.

Bills from both the Washington State House of Representatives and the Senate have reached double digits as legislators try to offer a counter to the governor’s proposal to create a regional taxing authority to take over the financially strapped Washington State Ferry system from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

“All these pieces are floating around and it needs to be pulled into a cohesive package within the state’s transportation plan,” said Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-23rd Dist. “So right now that’s what you see, a lot of activity because we have to get these ideas thrown out and sift through for a solution.”

The bills range from trying to make changes to labor and management to looking for sustainable funding mechanisms and securing the future of the ferry system within WSDOT as a whole.

Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed a 10 percent fare increase and about $16 million in service cuts for the 2011-13 biennium in her December budget, and then suggested creating a regional taxing authority in January.

Gregoire cited the need for a major overhaul to counterbalance the projected $900 million shortfall over the next 10 years for the WSF system. Annually, the WSF operating budget has a gap of about $30 million, which has been made up through special transfers from the WSDOT gas-tax fund. The transportation budget as a whole faces a major budget gap and Gregoire said it can no longer bail-out the WSF system.

Gregoire’s proposal was highly unpopular among legislators who argued the idea unfairly penalizes the ferry system from an overall ailing transportation budget, and would put undue burden on citizens taxed by the district. Instead, legislators are working to find alternative ideas to save the system.

Rolfes said an ideal solution would be legislation that maintains the current ferry service levels with a reasonable fare increase coupled with a decrease in labor and management costs.

“Ideas are coming forward to switch to liquid natural gas or integrating better information technology,” said Rolfes. “But there will be no magic bullet to find an answer.”

Rep. Sherry Appleton, D- 23rd Dist., said it’s hard to tell what is going to work because it’s early in the legislative session.

“I think there has to be a change of management at the top,” said Appleton. “I think we have to see if we can find a middle ground with the unions because they are being blamed for it all and the truth is that management has to take a big part of that blame.”

The measures proposed include

• House bills such as HB 1119 would privatize ferry management if certain standards are not met. HB 1516 and its companion senate bill (SB) 5406 would create an accountability board to improve and measure ferry system management and competitively contract out management to a private firm if management does not meet certain standards.

• HB 1352 would narrow the nonresident sales and use tax exemption to provide funding for the ferry system and other transportation purposes in non-border counties.

• HB 1005, introduced by Appleton, would create a WSF commission made up of ferry advisory committee members to assume oversight responsibilities from the Washington State Transportation Commissions.

Appleton said she introduced the bill because the Transportation Commission hasn’t done right by ferry commuters.

“They are into roads, not ferries, and there is no commissioner who commutes on a ferry,” said Appleton.

The commission would have 11 voting members – one appointed by the governor from each of the eight ferry advisory committees, and three appointed by the governor. Elected state officials and state employees wouldn’t be eligible.

• Five bills (HB 1511, 1512 and 1516 and SB 5405 and 5406) introduced earlier this week would work to limit ferry worker benefits – such as leave, holidays, travel time, meals and overtime – from being more generous than benefits of other state workers.

• SB 5408 would abolish the Marine Employees Commission (MEC), which manages ferry employees. Those employees would be moved under the Public Employee Relationship Commission which oversees other state employees. The change would save the state approximately $235,000 a year, according to the bill documents. Some have criticized the MEC for raising ferry employees pay too high.

Appleton said she won’t support any bills that are union busting because they won’t work.

Both Rolfes and Appleton believe privatizing the entire system is not an option since the ferries are a marine highway and should be treated like the rest of the highway system. Continuing to raise fares is prohibitive, they said, since it results in ridership decline.

“We’ve already priced two million riders out of the ferry market,” said Appleton. “I would like to see us reduce fares and get those two million riders back and see if that makes a difference.”

Rolfes and Torin Larsen, chair of the Bainbridge Island Ferry Advisory Committee, said islanders have been fairly quiet about the proposed changes thus far. Bainbridge and Kingston were the only routes not slated to have service reductions in the governor’s December budget proposal. Larsen said there are several things islanders don’t often realize that would impact Bainbridge riders:

• Cuts on Bremerton and Kingston will likely result in increased Bainbridge traffic.

• There is no plan for increased capacity on Bainbridge between now and 2030, although population and ridership is expected to increase significantly.

• If a major event were to occur Bainbridge may go several days before a second boat is restored due to the lack of backups in the system.

• The Bainbridge terminal and Colman Dock are some of the oldest infrastructure in the system. Capital plans from a decade ago called for these facilities to be replaced by now.

• A system based on reservations for seats is slated to be rolled out in the next few years. Commuters and people with unpredictable schedules will be impacted during peak periods.

Kari Ulatoski, from the grassroots organization Ferry Community Partnership (FCP) said the consensus is that these bills are a good start, but much needs to be worked out in discussion. The FCP is meeting weekly with ferry-served community members and is planning trips to Olympia to lobby for change.

Bainbridge Councilor Debbi Lester, a founder of FCP, has already made trips to Olympia to speak up for the ferry communities. Lester said the WSF budget is a small percentage compared to big ticket items coming out of the transportation system like the 520 Bridge construction and the Alaskan Way Tunnel.

“For over a decade, the legislature/WSDOT had not invested capital in the system to build new boats,” said Lester in an e-mail. “Boats were promised, yet never built. We are struggling now for this mismanagement and are faced with the need to build a boat every other year just to maintain the current fleet.”

The average age of a boat in the WSF fleet is 35.6 years, according to the FCP. WSF has only built one boat in the last 11 years while the fleet as a whole has aged by some 231 years in that time.

Anyone is invited to attend the FCP meetings that will be happening Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Norm Dicks Building in Bremerton to discuss ferry related issues and work on a list of funding and revenue recommendations.

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