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Ferry system facing 'cold hard reality'

Washington State Ferries’ proposal to shut down passenger-only ferry services is a bitter blow to Bremerton, but voter refusal to fund the system leaves WSF with little choice, local legislators say.

The proposal, floated Wednesday by WSF Director Mike Thorne at a state Transportation Commission meeting, follows repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and the failure of the Referendum 51 transportation package.

“Michael Thorne was facing some very difficult realities,” said Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island). “He is concentrating on his core mission to keep the system functioning.”

The WSF plan presented this week does not further reduce ferry service to Bainbridge. WSF trimmed one sailing a day between Seattle and Bainbridge earlier this year to save fuel and crew overtime.

The most dramatic cuts are the money-losing fast-ferry service between from downtown Seattle to Bremerton and Vashon Island. Passenger-only ferries are vulnerable since their operations require a large state subsidy. For every $1 of revenue the passenger-only service brings in, WSF spends $6 to keep the service running.

“I’m very disappointed about Bremerton,” said Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-Bremerton). The fast ferries have never really lived up to their potential.

Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo), said WSF needs to offer an offsetting gain to Bremerton.

“I want to hold the line on passenger-only ferries unless auto service to Bremerton is beefed up,” she said.

Woods wants to explore the possibility of serving Bremerton with three medium-size auto ferries – in the 130-car range – that might be able to make the run to downtown Seattle in 40 to 45 minutes.

Thorne’s package of money-saving ideas is intended to create a reserve fund the system can use to build new vessels and refurbish its terminals, capital funds that were gutted by the loss of the MVET.

“The key driver here is the lack of capital funding,” Rockefeller said. But Woods was not convinced.

“It seems like closing one section of a highway to build another section,” she said.

Thorne’s plan is to sell the foot ferries and a number of older boats, including at least some of those stored at the Eagle Harbor maintenance yard.

The plan also calls for other service cuts, especially during winter. A 1 a.m. sailing from Edmonds to Kingston would be permanently ended.

“In order to find the funding necessary to invest in our future, we looked at all available options and, in the end, made some tough, but necessary decisions,” Thorne said in a statement.

WSF officials hope funds saved could be used to reinvest in the system, by building replacement vessels.

“We have four boats that need to be retired,” said WSF spokeswoman Pat Patterson. “They are old and tired.”

Patterson said WSF has tried to find a process to not only live within its means, but to lessen the system’s dependency on state funding.

“It’s a cold, hard reality and we’re going to own the problem and solve it,” she said.

Thorne said when crafting the proposal, ferry officials tried to consider what would impact the fewest number of commuters and tried to recommend changes in situations where commuters have another transportation option.

The overall WSF proposal would leave some 95 percent of ferry users unaffected.

Rockefeller said he thinks Thorne is doing the best he can under difficult circumstances.

“I like the approach he has taken,” Rockefeller said. “I have a lot of respect for the realism he has injected into the system.”

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