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Critics slam WSF service plan

Late release, surprise option muddles debate, some say.

With just three weeks left before their draft long-range plan is due before the Legislature, Washington State Ferries planners are on a whirlwind tour of Puget Sound collecting public comment. WSF chief David Moseley and crew will hold a Bainbridge meeting Jan. 13, followed by a Kingston meeting Jan. 14. Comments will be accepted through Jan. 21.

Released Dec. 19, the draft plan includes two starkly different options for the future of the system. WSF has drawn fire from local Ferry Advisory Committee members for not allowing enough time for public vetting of the draft long-range plan.

WSF spokesperson Joy Goldenberg said the agency was providing ample time for public input with a one-month comment period. She said it was too early to know how the comments would be incorporated into the plan, but stressed that nothing would be finalized before the State Legislature has reviewed the proposals.

“The comments received will help inform the plan,” Goldenberg said. “We’re taking this very seriously.”

An Option A would maintain current service levels while gradually replacing the system’s aging fleet. Option B would significantly reduce service on several routes – including Bremerton and Kingston – while relying on locally funded passenger ferries to pick up the slack. The second option would relieve the state’s burden for funding ferry service and would require the replacement of only five vessels rather than 10 over the next 22 years.

Though Option B would be significantly less costly, options would still require an influx in funding to avoid multi-billion dollar deficits.

A passel of suggested operations strategies is bundled in both options. Those strategies include a reservation system, fuel surcharge for fares and tweaks to the pricing system. WSF believes the strategies would help the agency avoid future terminal expansions while encouraging more walk-on passengers and off-peak riders.

The long-range plan had been expected in November. Its late release just before the holidays, and the addition of a second option, have raised concern among local Ferry Advisory Committee members who believe its strategies will not receive enough public scrutiny. Martha Burke, chair of the Bainbridge FAC and Executive Committee of FACs, said she feels West Sound communities have been disenfranchised from the long-range planning process.

“I think it’s insulting really,” Burke said. “They don’t seem to want to hear from any of us, any of us over here on the peninsulas.”

Walt Elliot of the Kingston FAC agreed, and was upset especially when it came to the advent of Option B, he said.

“That had not been vetted with any local governments or FACs,” Elliott said. “This was an exploding cigar, so to speak.”

According to Goldenberg, the plan was released in December because it needed more time to develop and its release was timed to coincide with the governor’s proposed budget.

WSF Executive Director David Moseley said Option B was developed as an alternative for the system if new revenue isn’t found to shore up the $3.9 billion funding gap projected for the next 22 years. The revenue problems that led to the development of Option B were discussed in community meetings earlier this year, Moseley said.

“I’m surprised that it would be a surprise to people,” he said.

Local state Reps. Sherry Appleton of Poulsbo and Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge have already said that they are not interested in options that would reduce ferry service. Rolfes said addition of Option B would only serve as a detraction from discussion about the future of the ferry system.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they did that, because now everyone is focused on that, instead of making Option A work,” Rolfes said.

Moseley said turnout was heavy at community meetings held this week. More than 50 attended a meeting in Port Townsend Monday, while 100 packed the Useless Bay Golf Club on Whidbey Island on Tuesday.

Local FAC members are calling on north Kitsap residents to fill their own meeting halls.

“People have to get out to the public meetings,” Elliott said. “If we don’t speak out, they’ll think we don’t care.”

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