"Rockefeller, Sheldon launch ferry bills"

"Two Kitsap legislators hope to calm the waters for passenger ferry service.Sen. Betti Sheldon and Rep. Phil Rockefeller, both Democrats from the 23rd District, submitted bills this week that make ferries exempt from environmental review.“I think we’ll both be happy if either one of our bills goes,” Sheldon said. “This is our trial balloon, and we’re going to see how many bullets it takes to bring it down.”The bills were introduced despite plans by Washington State Ferries to axe all passenger-only vessels, this summer, in the wake of I-695 funding cuts.If the bills become law during the legislative session that opened Monday, the state ferry system or a public-private partnership could operate ferries without first conducting an expensive and time-consuming review process mandated by the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Sheldon and Rockefeller said they see the bills as “clarifying” SEPA, because they believe it was never intended to apply to boats.But some local property owners may disagree; 67 of them, including a number of Bainbridge Island residents, filed a class-action lawsuit last March claiming that the fast-ferry Chinook’s wake damaged shoreline in Rich Passage. Their lawyers argue that a SEPA review should have been conducted on the new, high-speed ferry technology.Rockefeller and Sheldon said their bills aren’t intended to keep property owners from seeking compensation if they can prove ferry wakes damaged their shores. The pending legislation is intended to remove one legal landmine from the future of ferry service – and Kitsap Transit executive director Dick Hayes said his proposed public-private foot ferry partnership would be severely hampered by that kind of legal entanglement.“This enables us to consider alternative arrangements” for the state ferry service expected to be cut this summer, Rockefeller said. He expects bi-partisan support for his bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Beverly Woods (R-23rd District) and signed onto by Reps. Pat Lantz (D-26th District), Kathy Haigh and Bill Eickmeyer (D-35th District) and Ruth Fisher (D-Tacoma).Rockefeller’s bill was submitted Monday, and Sheldon said Monday that she was making final revisions and expected to submit her bill this week. Sheldon’s bill is narrower than Rockefeller’s; hers would exempt from SEPA ferries run by the state or transit agencies that travel established state ferry routes. Rockefeller’s would exempt regularly scheduled ferries running between established terminal facilities.Sheldon said she was sure her bill would get a hearing at some point during the legislative session, which runs through March 9. “This doesn’t pull the state out of any responsibility to the property owners,” Sheldon said, “and it doesn’t intend to change SEPA. But ferries are so important to Kitsap County that we need this legislation.”Transit plan sees supportWithout a foot-ferry program, the bills introduced by Sheldon and Rockefeller would be moot. And a Bainbridge Island lobbyist said he’s had “100 percent cooperation” from Kitsap County’s delegation of nine state legislators, during his work on Kitsap Transit’s passenger-only ferry proposal.Mike Ryherd, a professional lobbyist and veteran of countless Olympia forays, was hired by Kitsap Transit late last year to gather support for a plan that could replace the foot ferries that the state ferry system plans to axe this summer.Ryherd reported to the Kitsap Transit board last week that he’s working with legislators who represent East Sound communities served by the ferry system. He’s also working with the East Sound business community, because many of their valued employees are Kitsap County residents.Ryherd has a four-month contract with Kitsap Transit for $16,000. The transit board approved a $250,000 budget last month for Kitsap Transit executive director Dick Hayes to spend on consulting services and development of the passenger ferry plan.Hayes said the developing proposal may seek less sales tax money than the 1 percent originally proposed; he now pegs the number at seven-tenths of 1 percent.A local sales tax hike requiring voter approval is the only option discussed so far to pay for the service."

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