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Budget squabble mires ferry fare hike

"What some insiders label an ego-driven impasse over a $10,000 traffic study has once again delayed an increase in ferry fares. And the fight, which is costing the ferry system some $400,000 per week, shows no signs of ending.The state Transportation Commission was poised again Thursday to implement the 20 percent fare increase that had been recommended by the Tariff Policy Committee and received strong support from the ferry riders. But it adjourned without acting because the legislature has not yet given the go-ahead.What concerns us, is that time is money and with each day passing, the hole in the ferry budget increases, said Transportation Commission chairwoman Connie Niva. The recent postponement could cost the WSF anywhere from $410,000 to $730,000 in projected revenue, depending on when, or if, the Legislature passes the house bill.The obstacle is a bill to exempt ferry fares from the spending limits of the citizen-passed Initiative 601, which generally limits revenue increases to the rate of inflation or population growth. With the 601 limits in effect, the fare increases would be limited to roughly 3 percent.The issue is not the fare increases themselves. The House has approved a bill lifting the 601 cap. And the Senate's transportation bill provided enough money to maintain ferry operations at their current levels but directed the system to raise an additional $30 million in fares, which requires a 601 waiver.The sticking point is a a House-passed amendment to the lid-lift bill. At the behest of Rep. Joe Marine, a Mukilteo Republican, the House added $10,000 for a study of traffic in ferry-terminal communities. Some Democrats saw the amendment as a pork-barrel item aimed at bolstering Marine's chances to hold the House seat to which he was appointed in an upcoming special election.Although fast-tracked to the Senate on March 14, Transportation Committee chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) held it in committee for almost a month, until April 9. Committee members passed the measure that day, removing the $10,000 study.The Senate passed HB 1012 without the traffic impact study later that afternoon. By the next day, the House asked the Senate to agree to the study. On April 11, the Senate stuck to its guns, telling the House to agree with its decision.If House members fail to comply, the bill is dead, according to Senate Majority Floor Leader Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton. HB 1012 is a sore point with me, said Sheldon. I am extremely disappointed and concerned because I oppose holding up the bill over the $10,000 study.Kitsap representatives on either side of the aisle in the House are disappointed by the scuffle, saying it shouldn't be happening.Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island) said the situation is ridiculous.Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo) questioned the Senate's resistance to the study. The study would be for all ferry terminal communities, Woods said. And the fact is, while we've resolved the traffic problems Bremerton had with the Gateway project and the transportation center, ferry traffic continues to affect all of Bainbridge Island and Kingston's local businesses.One legislator who asked not to be identified by name called the situation stupid.This is a bunch of egos clashing, the legislator said. The ferry system is way too important to jeopardize over something this small.In light of the delay, WSF officials do plan to enact the summer surcharge fares as scheduled on May 13, when the general 20 percent fare increase was scheduled to take effect. "

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