How will ferries fare in Olympia?

Faced with popular demands to spend less while doing more, local legislators are more than happy to hand the ball off to someone else.

And if that means letting someone else try their hand at operating passenger-only ferries, they’re happy to go along.

“We are committed to continuing passenger-only service, but not necessarily as something the state provides,” said Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island).

He and Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo) are pushing measures that would allow Kitsap Transit to take over fast-ferry service from Bremerton and Vashon Island to downtown Seattle, and initiate similar service from Kingston.

Washington State Ferries has announced plans to abandon that service in June because fares don’t come close to covering the operating costs of the service.

Kitsap Transit has dusted off plans to take over the existing Vashon and Bremerton runs and expand to Kingston, using smaller boats than the 350-passenger vessels that WSF uses, and adding more frequent runs.

The legislation at issue is enabling only. Kitsap County voters would still need to approve an as-yet unspecified funding package.

Woods is also pushing legislation to explicitly allow private companies to compete with WSF on passenger-only routes. While that is somewhat academic, because both WSF and the unions have expressed willingness to waive the rule, Woods believes it may further encourage private operations.

“We have been promising passenger-only service from Bremerton and Kingston for years, but we haven’t been able to deliver it,” Woods said.

The problem, according to Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-Tracyton), is that voters keep demanding services, then voting against the designated funding mechanisms.

“We were set to go with expanded passenger-ferry service, then came I-695 and the repeal of the Motor Vehicle Tax,” she said.

“Then there was Referendum 51, which would have provided money for (foot ferries), and it was voted down. It takes the wind out of your sails, especially when your own constituents vote against these things they say they need.”

Sheldon supports legislation to enable Kitsap Transit to take over.

“We’ve tried to do this, and it hasn’t helped,” she said. “So our hopes are pinned on giving Kitsap Transit the support they need, if people will vote to raise the taxes on themselves.”

Woods is also investigating whether money could be saved by operating the foot ferries only during commuter hours, something that the unions have generally opposed in the past.

To respond to the argument that the state has plenty of money for transportation, but does not spend it wisely, legislators are looking at new mandates for accountability and efficiency.

Woods agreed, saying that efficiency-related measures “that we (Republicans) have wanted to get through for years are finally getting bipartisan support.”

As to the big picture – the $2.4 billion deficit at a time when anti-tax sentiment seems to rule the state – the three legislators who represent Bainbridge Island say that no solution is in sight.

In the House, both Woods and Rockefeller say budget requests are being carefully scrutinized.

“We’re a long way from a budget – there are no proposals yet,” Rockefeller said.

It’s the same story in the Senate, according to Sheldon.

“If you talked to the 24 Democrats in the Senate, you’d probably get 20 different ideas,” Sheldon said. “Nobody has really articulated the caucus position, or their own.”

Gov. Locke’s proposed budget does not increase taxes, but pares back social services, especially the Basic Health plan, and freezes salaries for state employees, which generated a large demonstration from teachers.

Rockefeller could not predict how Locke’s proposals would fare in the House.

“Any governor’s budget is a starting point,” he said. “We applaud the governor’s method of trying to define the basic government services, but we will make our own judgment about priorities.”

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