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Big wins for ferry riders in Olympia session

Successful bills boost passenger-only service, popular

commuter discounts.

It was by most accounts a woeful winter for Washington State Ferries.

But ferry riders may have seen a change in weather, as the state legislative session wrapped up Thursday and several popular ferry bills gained approval.

Two WSF rule changes with widespread support from commuters were approved narrowly in the final days of the session.

One will restore language to state law allowing discounts for frequent riders to be considered in fare setting, wording removed by 2007 legislation that also froze ferry fares. The other will allow riders to use their Wave2Go pass to pay for multiple fares on the same trip.

Both bills were stalled in committee and appeared doomed to await another session, but rebounded to be added as provisos in the legislature’s transportation budget.

The provisions of the two bills were first included in the House budget, then pulled by the Senate, only to be added again as the bodies hashed out a compromise on the document. Though not passed as legislation, the language of the bills will have to be followed as future budgets are drafted.

It was a rocky way to get the changes made, but the result was good for ferry commuters, said Poulsbo Rep. Sherry Appleton, who sponsored both bills.

“They ended up being where they needed to be,” Appleton said. “It’s about working families and it’s about good faith. It’s absolutely important that we have good faith with commuters because they support the ferry system and they have for a long time.”

Appleton’s bill to extend the expiration date on Wave2Go passes did not emerge from committee, as did her bills to increase gas tax revenue for WSF and create a state ferry advisory commission.

Bainbridge residents were especially vocal in backing the bill to restore commuter discount language to law.

The City Council wrote a letter of support and a delegation of islanders made the trip to Olympia for a House Transportation Committee public hearing. Bainbridge’s Debbi Lester, representing the Ferry Community Partnership, an organization of residents from ferry-served communities, gave testimony and said she even briefly pitched the bill to Gov. Christine Gregoire.

“I’m very glad the language has been restored, I think government has gained back some integrity,” Lester said. “I think the key was that all the communities worked together. That’s historic. I don’t think it has ever happened before.

Bainbridge Rep. Christine Rolfes, who co-sponsored the bill, said support from Bainbridge was a factor in getting ferry legislation passed this session.

“Members of the Bainbridge community were really key players in getting the advancements we made this year,” Rolfes said. “It’s nice to be part of a bigger team and part of a bigger community effort to get things done.”

Rolfes also sponsored a bill that could help clear the way for regional foot-ferry service. It passed the Senate late in the session and has been delivered to the governor for approval.

Under the legislation, Puget Sound port districts would be allowed to operate passenger ferries and WSF would be required to cooperate with ports in the use of terminals and other facilities. Only port districts on inland waterways had previously been allowed to run passenger vessels.

The bill’s progress was closely followed by the Port of Kingston, which has already submitted a plan to the governor for a foot ferry service to Seattle, but needed the legislation to move forward.

Bainbridge Sen. Phil Rockefeller co-sponsored a bill aimed at large-scale reform in WSF that blazed through the legislature in the latter half of the session. The bill requires the agency to adopt a strict maintenance schedule for both vessels and terminals and make frequent progress reports to legislature. The legislature also took a stab at replacing some of the aging fleet, allocating $100 million to replace the 80-year-old steel electric boats pulled from the Port Townsend route.

While bills from the short spring session may have chipped away at some nagging ferry problems, larger issues loom in the coming year.

Local legislators still want to identify a stable funding source for WSF that could take some of the burden off the fare box. Appleton said she will revive her bill to get WSF a thicker slice of the gas tax in the next session, though that money would have to come from other state transportation projects. The results of separate economic studies from the state Transportation Commission and the Legislature Joint Transportation Committee are expected next fall and could give clearer picture of long-term financing options.

Appleton said she was optimistic that with new leadership in the Department of Transportation and WSF, the agencies’ more daunting problems can slowly be addressed.

“It’s a start,” she said. “These problems will take a long time to fix because it took a long time to get to this point. Incrementally we are doing good things.”

Beyond ferries the local delegation touted a number of budget allocations for Kitsap County projects. A pilot project to promote telecommuting for West Sound employees of King County businesses won support as did a study on the feasibility of a four-year university in Kitsap County.

A bill sponsored by Rockefeller will require all cars sold in the state to carry a sticker informing buyers of its estimated greenhouse gas emissions, and listing the average and lowest emissions for the same model year for comparison. A similar law has already been enacted in California.

The session is over but legislators will have little time to rest before they begin building new initiatives and reinvigorating support for bills that never reached a vote. Appleton, Rockefeller and Rolfes will all be campaigning for reelection this year as well.

Rolfes was heading home to Bainbridge after Legislature adjourned Thursday, but she wasn’t sure how long her respite would last.

“I might take tomorrow off,” she said.

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