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Transit's 'mosquito fleet' plan swatted

"Kitsap Transit's plan to operate passenger-only fast-ferries has come under a withering cross-fire from both labor and state ferry officials, leaving supporters to question the plan's viability.I had been enthusiastic about the plan, said Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, after a presentation on the proposal last week on Bainbridge Island. But the criticisms were persuasive. If this is not a viable plan, let's find that out now. The critique came at a Friday subcommittee meeting of the legislative Joint Task Force on Ferries, which was formed to address the $145 million annual revenue loss to the ferry system resulting from Initiative 695. The meeting was held aboard the ferry Nisqually, docked at the WSF's Eagle Harbor maintenance yard.There, Kitsap Transit Executive Director Richard Hayes pitched his agency's proposal to the Service Delivery Options Subcommittee of the task force, which is looking specifically at the issue of passenger-only ferries. The plan calls for a fleet of small, high-speed boats linking Bremerton and Kingston with downtown Seattle. The fast ferries that currently serve Bremerton would move to a run between Seattle and Southworth, on the south portion of the Kitsap Peninsula.We saw this as a way to get started quickly, Hayes said. With small boats, we could modify existing terminals instead of building new ones. And we could save money on operations.The Kitsap Transit plan would use 149-capacity passenger vessels with a 35-knot service speed, compared to the 350-passenger, 40-knot vessels WSF is using on its Bremerton run.The plan reduce vessel operating costs by paring crews from three to five, which Hayes said the smaller boats would permit, by lowering crew wages and by instituting split shifts and part-time work.Those proposals did not sit well with subcommittee member Dave Freiboth of the Inland Boatman's Union, the organization that represents WSF workers.We've spent years trying to create pay and working conditions for our members, he said. There's no way we're going to allow a different set of conditions to come in for new service.But Freiboth's remarks were almost mild compared to those from Terry McCarthy, deputy director of the Washington State Ferries, who said the plan depends a myriad of rosy scenarios.Getting all the boats you plan to use in and out of Seattle could work only if all the boats are exactly on time, McCarthy said. But the boats are never always on time. There are ships out there in the sound, and sailboats. Something always slows you down.McCarthy questioned the proposed boat acquisition costs, which he said were half of WSF's costs.If you can find a way to buy boats for your price, sell them to us. We'll split the difference and both make money, he said.Finally, McCarthy said that building new terminals, even temporary ones, is a difficult proposition, especially with new environmental obstacles.We think we've figured out how to satisfy the neighbors, he said. But now, we've got to satisfy the salmon too.The subcommittee is studying whether passenger-ferry service could be offered more economically by an entity other than WSF. The Kitsap Transit proposal called for a state-local partnership. Other conceptual proposals call for public-private partnerships, or for total privatization.But the Friday presentations left Rockefeller, at least, questioning whether those inquiries will be productive.We'll hear from a representative of the private sector, he said. But I think the presentation Friday showed us, realistically, what some of the obstacles are.Although a member of the joint task force, Rockefeller is not a member of the service-option subcommittee. Also present as observers were Rep. Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo, and Alice Tawresey, who chairs the transportation commission's panel on ferry fares. Like Rockefeller, both are task force members but serve on different subcommittees.Tawresey agreed with Rockefeller's assessment of the problems.I've said all along that labor could kill any of these proposals, she said.Woods was even more pessimistic.I've never really been in favor of Kitsap Transit trying to play a major role, she said. To me, that is dead. But I was encouraged to see Dick Hayes talking about a regional approach to ferry service. Passenger-only service to downtown Seattle is seen by many as a key to population growth and economic development in Kitsap County. A Kingston connection is particularly important to Bainbridge Island because it would give North Kitsap commuters a gateway to Seattle other than the Bainbridge ferry terminal, thereby reducing cross-island traffic and terminal parking congestion.WSF itself plans to institute such service if and when money permits.We're all in favor of passenger service to Kingston, McCarthy said. I just don't think Kitsap Transit can do it any better than we can.McCarthy said the large auto ferries, which can accommodate some 2,500 passengers, are still going to be the mainstays of the system because they move more people more economically than any alternative.The State Transportation Committee's new money budget - essentially a wish list - includes plans for foot-ferry service. But the current money budget proposal, which essentially sets out how the ferry system would use the existing level of appropriation, doesn't even include money for the current passenger ferries to Bremerton.That service is funded through June 30, 2001, only.If we don't get more money, we'll park those boats and cut that service adrift, McCarthy said. "

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