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Ferry panel: long-term funding is key

"Kitsap County's members on the state's blue-ribbon panel on ferry service agree that their job can't stop at merely restoring funds lost to Initiative 695. Instead, the group needs to look at long-term approaches that will not only preserve but expand the the Washington State Ferries system.We can't be going to the Legislature hat in hand each year, asking for appropriations from the general fund, said Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo). It's not fair to commuters moving to Kitsap County, who need to be able to plan their commute for more than a year.State Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island) agrees. We need to use the funding crisis to look ahead at what ferry service should look like. The ability of the West Sound to participate fully in the economy of the state depends on the ferries, he said.Woods and Rockefeller are two of the eight legislators named to the Joint Task Force on Ferries created by the last Legislature after I-695 eliminated the state Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, which had provided some 45 percent of the funding for the ferry system. The group, which is to report to the next legislative session in January, is required by statute to be politically and geographically balanced. Four of the eight legislative members are from ferry-dependent communities, four from elsewhere. Each geographical group is to contain two state senators and two state representatives, and each pair must have one Democrat and one Republican.The task force is also to include other stakeholders, including ferry riders and union representatives.The two house slots for ferry-dependent communities went to Woods and Rockefeller. The ferry-dependent Senate seats went to Democrat Tim Sheldon of Mason County and Republican Bob Oke of Port Orchard. State Sen.Gary Chandler (R-Moses Lake) is the only non-ferry-dependent member yet selected, and none of the non-legislative members have been named.After I-695 ripped a huge hole in the budget of the already beleaguered ferry system, the 2000 Legislature found money to maintain operations for the rest of the year, but created the joint task force to look for permanent solutions to ferry funding. Also, the patchwork solution did nothing for the system's substantial capital needs.With recommendations due in January, and the appointments not yet complete, the local members are concerned about time.Time is of the essence, Rockefeller said. There is a lot of work to do.Woods sees three major questions that must be addressed. The first is whether funding for ongoing operations will be pegged at maintaining existing service, or whether money will be available for long-term expansion. The second question is a source of money for capital expenses - purchasing and maintaining boats and terminals. The third issue is the state role, if any, in passenger-only fast-ferry service.The 18th amendment of the Washington constitution says ferries are part of the state highway system, she said. It's far less clear whether that mandate includes passenger service.A particular matter of concern for Woods is the long-discussed passenger-only service from Kingston to downtown Seattle.The ridership is there, she said. A link to the I-5 corridor is vital to the Kitsap County economy. And linking Kingston to downtown Seattle would give people on the peninsula another way to get downtown, which would reduce traffic on Bainbridge Island.Rockefeller said his initial focus would be to determine whether there is consensus on certain broad principles. He specifically cited the principles that highway finding is available for the ferry system, and that providing capital funding for the ferry system is the state's job.If we don't have agreement on those issues, I don't know whether we'll be able to accomplish much, he said.Beyond those broad areas, both legislators agreed that the real sticking point may be coming up with sources of money for the ferries, particularly capital funding. And that's a big number, according to Woods, who said that I-695 cost the system $650 million in capital funds over the next five years.Woods said one possible source of capital funding may be to earmark a portion of the sales tax on auto-related items for ferries. Rockefeller suggested that leasing rather than buying boats might make sense.Both agreed that fares will have to increase to provide more of the operating budget. And both thought that increased federal funding is a possibility.There was a national conference on the future of ferries in Seattle recently, Rockefeller said. We learned that almost 20 percent of national ferry ridership is in Washington, but we don't get anywhere near 20 percent of the federal funds.Rockefeller said possible political changes between now and January will increase the difficulty of the task force's job, especially another possible initiative from I-695 sponsor Tim Eyman that would mandate spending 90 percent of transit money on highways. It's not at all clear whether that would include or exclude ferries, Rockefeller said.One benefit of the task force, according to Woods, will be the opportunity to increase the non-user community's understanding of the ferry system's importance, and build alliances. And on that score, she has some surprising observations.The ferry system has more support from people east of the Cascades than from the east side of Puget Sound, she said. We need to get people in the I-405 corridor to understand that a better ferry system means less traffic in Bellevue. "

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