Transportation budget passed, but not the bucks

The State Legislature passed the buck on passenger-only ferries without passing the bucks.

Legislators endorsed Kitsap Transit’s plans to take over fast-ferry service that Washington State Ferries will terminate, passing legislation to enable a vote on that plan. But they couldn’t fit a requested $5 million in seed money into its $4.2 billion, 10-year transportation plan, the centerpiece of which is a 5-cent hike in the gallon gasoline tax.

“That was going to go for environmental impact work, and to build a prototype boat on a hurry-up basis to conduct tests, especially on wakes,” said Kitsap Transit Executive Director Dick Hayes.

“We can still design the boats and proceed as if they would perform according to design, but it would be better if we had some chance to actually operate them. When we’re working on an issue like wake wash, feelings may be the most important part of it,” Hayes said.

After WSF announced plans to terminate foot-ferry service as of June 15, Kitsap Transit resurrected its plans to develop a fleet of small, fast boats to take over and expand that service. It plans to ask Kitsap County voters to approve a tax increase to finance the operation.

The Legislature offered temporary balm to fast-ferry riders, extending the Vashon-Seattle run for two years and the Bremerton-Seattle run for three months, to Sept. 20.

The different treatment was prompted, evidently, by the fact that Bremerton riders can still reach downtown Seattle on the auto ferries, although more slowly, while Vashon riders would otherwise have to ride auto ferries to Fauntleroy in West Seattle, then take a bus or drive downtown through congested areas.

Hayes said, though, that the Vashon extension complicates Kitsap Transit’s plans by creating the impression that at some point, the state will step in and rescue fast-ferry service in Kitsap County as well.

“It hasn’t helped us that Vashon’s legislators are going around saying that they have saved the foot ferries,” he said.

Vashon service, all within King County, was not directly linked to the Kitsap Transit plan, which would connect the Kitsap County points of Southworth, Bremerton and Kingston to downtown Seattle.

Hayes and King County officials had been discussing some form of interlocal agreement that would link the two counties, but nothing had been finalized.

With Vashon out of the mix, King County would not participate in the fast-ferry plan.

“When riders get off the boats in downtown Seattle, they get on buses that King County subsidizes and we don’t,” said Hayes. “I think the people who argue that King County should be part of the fast-ferry plan are simply looking for a reason to vote against it, which they would do anyway.”

The transportation package, approved just before the regular 105-day session concluded April 27, boosts the state’s gas tax by 5 cents a gallon in July. The tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1990, will increase to 28 cents a gallon.

Although the overall package contains relatively little for Kitsap County specifically, state Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-Bremerton), was still pleased.

“I am really feeling positive we made some real progress,” said Sheldon, D-Bremerton, who originally voted against the package but supported it in the final vote. “These projects mean jobs in the state of Washington and in our area. That is always good for the economy.”

Despite the failure of the up-front money, Sheldon is still optimistic about Kitsap Transit’s plans.

“It is a big opportunity because we in Kitsap will have the ability to put together a passenger-only-ferry program that will serve us,” Sheldon said.

“I hope we can get the voters to see the picture, that this is our opportunity to design a program that will serve this county from Kingston to Bremerton to Southworth. I’m excited about it.”

Fast-ferry service from Kingston to downtown Seattle has been a long-time objective of Bainbridge Island on the theory that the route will draw riders from the peninsula that now take the boats from Bainbridge, thereby reducing some of the traffic congestion on Highway 305.

The only other project with any local significance in the transportation package is $2.3 million to continue work on State Route 305 from the Poulsbo City limits to Bond Road. The 1.5 mile stretch is to be widened and bike lanes added.

Rep. Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo, wasn’t pleased with the outcome, expressing concerns about the taxes in the package in addition to the sales-tax hike county voters will have to approve to finance the Kitsap Transit plan.

“This is the most disappointed I’ve been in four sessions,” she said.

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