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Woods launches ferry bill

"Rep. Beverly Woods introduced legislation this week that she thinks will moderate ferry fare increases, by shifting more of the system's burden on the taxpayers.But the Poulsbo Republican is not yet willing to address the question of how to get that money from the taxpayers.Woods' bill would require the state transportation commission to report annually to the Legislature about the percentage of ferry operating costs recovered from fares, and to exclude maintenance costs from the base in making the report.The state constitution requires the state to build and maintain highways, Woods said Friday. The ferry system is our highway, so maintenance should the state's responsibility.The bill is Woods' response to the ferry Tariff Policy Committee, which has recommended fare increases sufficient to recover 80 percent of operating costs. The increases would be phased in over six years.When fully effective, fares on the Seattle-Bainbridge run would increase from the present $3.70 for a passenger only to $6.50, and the car-and-driver fare, now $6.50 each way, would jump to $12.Believing those increases are too much too soon, Rep. Woods hopes to reduce the dollar base attributable to operations, at least for reporting purposes. That, she maintains, would reduce the increases required to reach 80 percent recovery.But the chair of the Tariff Policy Committee, Alice Tawresey said her committee's recommendations targeted total dollars, not a percentage recovery.We were trying to figure out how high fares could go before ridership drops off to the point that you start losing revenue, the Bainbridge Island resident said.The first year, for example, we were trying to raise revenues $10.6 million. If you reduce what you call the operational budget, then the target recovery percentage would be higher.It is unclear what Woods' bill would accomplish. The legislature does not set ferry fares - that is done by the Transportation Commission, which is advised by Tawresey's committee.The governor's Blue Ribbon Transportation Commission incorporated the Tawresey committee's recommendations in its December report to Gov. Gary Locke. Karen Schmidt, the lone West Sound resident on that commission, agreed Friday that there was nothing magic about a percentage-recovery figure.We wanted to encourage the Legislature to focus on the work of the Tariff Policy Committee, Schmidt said.Schmidt, known as Bainbridge Island's ferry godmother during her years representing the 23rd District in the Olympia, said she would like to see the current Legislature address what she calls the color of money issue.For many years, the state gasoline tax was distributed under a formula that gave the ferry system something over 6 percent of the total amount, she said. In the early 1990s, that was reduced, and the ferry system got more of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. That was done because of the feeling that the gasoline tax did not reflect inflation as well as the MVET.It was the repeal of the MVET by the voters and Legislature that plunged the ferry system into its current funding crisis.I would like to see the Legislature go back to the pre-MVET formula as a matter of basic fairness, Schmidt said.Figures from the Blue Ribbon Commission show that the gasoline tax now raises roughly $760 million per year, or $33 million for each penny of tax. The old formula would have directed just under $50 million of that money to the ferry system.Under the present funding formula, the ferry system receives just over $30 million annually from the gas tax.While Woods' bill imposes reporting requirements, it does nothing to address the question of where the money will come from for the portion of ferry-system operations not recovered at the fare box, or for the system's capital needs - major overhauls and replacement of equipment. All told, the ferry system lost roughly $125 million annually in MVET revenue.And Woods is not willing to discuss that issue. I have no comment on that today, she said, but I am not willing yet to say we need new revenues.Schmidt is not so reluctant.We absolutely have to find new funding sources, said Schmidt, a Republican. We have been looking for efficiencies for years in the legislature, and they can always find something that could be done more cheaply. But we are not going to find the massive amounts of money the ferry system needs from efficiencies.Schmidt says she has advised West Sound legislators to put together a questionnaire about possible new revenue measures, and circulate it to voters for comment. Possibilities suggested by the Blue Ribbon Commission included things like a weight-based vehicle fee, increased taxes on gasoline, or per-mile fees, especially in congested areas.These are not pleasant alternatives, she said. It's sort of like being asked to choose between being shot or being hung. But at some point, you have to tell the voters that you simply need more money, and we are at that point. "

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