Funds elusive in governor's ferry budget

"Gov. Gary Locke's budget proposal for the ferry system is a little bit like a still picture of one of the boats. You can't tell which direction it's moving without more information.On one hand, Locke's funding proposals are relatively generous. On the other, the proposals depend at least in part on money that may not exist.If the money is available, we'll be in pretty good shape, Washington State Ferries spokesperson Pat Patterson said Thursday. But even this budget assumes a loss of service in some areas compared to before I-695.Locke's budget, released this week, calls for WSF spending of $535 million in the two-year period beginning July 1, 2001. That's a decline of almost $50 million from the $583 million the system was scheduled to receive in the 1999-2001 biennium prior to the passage of Initiative 695 in 1999.I-695 repealed the value-based Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and replaced it with a flat $30-per-vehicle registration fee. Although the Washington Supreme Court ultimately declared I-695 unconstitutional, the state legislature had already repealed the MVET.The loss of MVET funds knocked a $750 million annual hole in the state budget. Because of the way MVET money had been earmarked, the loss hit the ferry system particularly hard.Locke's budget calls for $321 million in ferry operational funds for the upcoming biennium, a slight increase over the $316 million in the previous biennium's budget.That amount keeps the current level of service for the next two years, Patterson said, and gives us more money for fuel.The MVET repeal cost the ferry system some $36 million in operational funds. Locke's budget makes up that amount in part by calling for $20 million to be appropriated annually from the general fund. It also assumes approval of substantial ferry fare increases, proposed earlier this month by the state Transportation Commission and wrapped into the recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel that looked at transportation needs around the state.Under that proposal, the walk-on round trip fare for central sound runs including Bainbridge Island would jump from $3.70 to $4.20 beginning next year, and hit $6.50 in 2006. Basic car/driver fares would climb from the current $6.50 to $7.50 next year, and $12 in 2006.Locke also proposes $214 million for capital expenses - vessel maintenance, construction of new boats and improvements for terminals and other facilities.The comparable pre-695 figure was $267 million, meaning the budget replaces some but not all of the almost $90 million lost annually from MVET repeal.The size of Locke's capital appropriation pleased Patterson.That is much more than we had hoped, she said. We were looking for $162 million.No service improvementsPatterson said the capital budget, if approved, would provide for early planning and design for four new car ferries, and for the renovation of ferry terminals at Anacortes and Mukilteo.The new boats, she said, are not to provide additional service, but rather to replace existing boats that are getting so old that they could no longer be licensed by the Coast Guard.These are 100 to 110-car boats that might be used on the Port Townsend run, for example, she said.The governor's budget does not contain any money for new or expanded service, meaning that hoped-for improvements, such as a fast passenger-only ferry from Kingston to downtown Seattle, are not on the horizon.Nor does the budget restore services lost in the wake of the MVET repeal. For Bainbridge, that means the three-boat service offered during the peak summer months of 1999 will not be restored. But unlike some routes, Bainbridge did not lose any night or weekend service, and will not lose any under the proposed budget.This is a maintenance budget, said Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island). I'm pleased that the governor recommends continuing the $20 million annual appropriation from the general fund for operations.Locke's budget, though, is contingent on revenue streams that do not yet exist. Not only is he counting on increased fares, but also on new taxes.The governor recommended $5.9 billion in new transportation spending over the next six years, but did not specify any source of money. Rather, Locke called on the Legislature to agree on a revenue source, then to put the proposal to a vote of the people.While Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-Bremerton) approved of the concept of a transportation package, she feared a replay of the recent scenario where the voters approved an ambitious bond-funded transportation program in 1997, only to undo it in 1999 with passage of I-695.Ultimately, we have to hope the voters are more educated, she said. "

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