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Bremerton foot-ferry run thrown overboard

The fight for continued passenger-only ferry service is heating up in Olympia, and the Bremerton-to-Seattle run could be a casualty.

Reps. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo) and Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island) Friday rolled out a new bipartisan water transportation strategy before the House Transportation Committee.

The strategy would continue state-run foot-ferry service at reduced levels on some runs, and expand it to others, to avoid a complete shutdown on June 15.

“Washington State Ferries said it doesn’t have the money to continue the passenger-only ferry runs, so our focus has been on finding revenue,” Woods said.

Rockefeller, vice chairman of the transportation committee, said he and Woods will continue to work toward a state solution even though ferry officials announced their intent to cut the program for cost savings reasons in June.

“Continuing the passenger-only service for those who rely on it to get to work is what we’re fighting for,” Rockefeller said.

The strategy would save passenger-only service between Vashon and Seattle, add runs to Kingston and Southworth during peak commute times, and eliminate the service between Bremerton and downtown Seattle.

Putting foot-ferry service at Kingston is seen as key to cutting terminal-bound traffic on Highway 305 across Bainbridge Island.

Woods said part of the strategy is to increase auto-ferry service in Bremerton to accommodate passengers there.

The Poulsbo lawmaker said ridership on the Bremerton-Seattle passenger route has slipped since the slowdown of foot-ferry vessels in Rich Passage. The slowdown followed a lawsuit by Bainbridge residents and others, who cited wake damage to shorelines.

Woods said fare-box recovery hovers at a mere 27 percent, and a trip to Seattle on the passenger-only ferry is now only 10 minutes faster than a trip aboard the auto ferries.

Other components of the strategy include:

• Directing the state to increase the portion of passenger-only operating costs paid by fares, probably through a combination of higher fares and lower operating costs. The goal is to increase fare box recovery rates from 27 percent to a minimum 40 percent. Proposals include providing foot-ferry service during the heavy morning and afternoon commutes and eliminating two or three round trips a day.

“Giving up the midday runs of the passenger-only ferries will save enough on labor and fuel to continue the trips our commuters need most,” Woods said.

• Endorsing most of WSF officials’ strategic business plan, which involves reducing costs by 5 percent, increasing fares by 5 percent and generating 5 percent in new revenue through advertising and other marketing plans. Doing so is expected to fund two new auto ferries and one new passenger-only ferry – without a tax increase.

• Looking for $234 million in new capital funding for 2003-13 for two additional auto ferries, one new foot-ferry vessel, terminal preservation projects and terminal improvements.

The House Transportation Committee also approved three related bills Friday. Supporters say the trio of bills act as a good back up to the panel’s proposed foot-ferry strategy.

“We are also taking sensible actions to prepare for the possibility that WSF simply won’t be able to continue running the boats,” Rockefeller said. “The bills approved give us a ‘Plan B’ if we need it.”

The committee approved a measure prime-sponsored by Rockefeller that gives Kitsap Transit the go-ahead to seek voter approval to offer passenger-only ferry service in Puget Sound. A companion measure sponsored by Sen. Oke was approved by the Senate late last week.

The second measure approved by the committee, prime-sponsored by Woods, would exempt privately operated ferries from a rule that prohibits vessels from running within 10 miles of state-operated ferry route.

The third bill approved by the committee provides the ferry system with more flexibility to enact its new business plan by allowing WSF to sell space for advertising, and enter into leases for concessions even in parking lots.

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