WSF finishing long-range plan, still no long-term funding solutions

Washington State Ferries left this year’s legislative session with short-term money and the beginnings of a long-range plan.

The Legislature allocated funds for the construction of two 64-car Island Home ferries, to join the 64-car ferry already under construction. And it included the construction of two 144-car ferries in its six-year financial plan.

It also directed WSF to consider transit enhancements, study a tariff system to link fares to fuel prices, and develop a pilot project for introducing vehicle reservations.

But a sustainable funding source for maintaining WSF’s fleet and facilities remains frustratingly elusive, WSF chief David Moseley said Tuesday at a public meeting held on Bainbridge.

“What we didn’t get this session was a dedicated revenue stream for our capital program,” Moseley said. “Unless you have a revenue stream, it’s a wish list, not a plan.”

Still, just maintaining all of its ferry routes was a victory this year, Moseley said. One of the draft long-range plans WSF delivered to the Legislature was a worst-case-scenario that called for significant cuts to service system-wide. The plan drew protest from citizens throughout Puget Sound.

“There was much more buzz about ferries in this session than in past years,” Moseley said. “And that had a lot to do with the citizens.”

Based on guidance from the Legislature, WSF is finalizing a long-range plan this month.

For starters, riders can expect fares to jump by 2.5 percent, after a legislatively imposed fare freeze sunsets in October and another 2.5 percent in 2010.

Past that, WSF will be considering how to build a fuel tariff into fares. It will bring a recommendation to the Transportation Commission, which oversees fares.

“We’ll be wrestling with that for the rest of the month,” Moseley said.

The state budget included $3.7 million for ferries to begin developing a vehicle reservation system. WSF has already chosen the Kingston to Edmonds route for a reservation pilot program, which could be implemented as early as 2011.

While a reservation system is already in place on the Port Townsend route, the technology being used is “rudimentary,” said WSF Planning Director Ray Deardorf.

The Legislature has directed WSF to consider ways of improving integration with other transit agencies on a route-by-route basis. So far there is little information on what form those improvements would take.

WSF’s long-range capital plan will focus on consistent boat-replacement, while sidelining all but the most pressing terminal projects.

WSF hopes to have the three 64-car ferries built by 2012, and has plans to refurbish the Hyak. Two of the new ferries would be used to restore regular service on the Port Townsend to Keystone route. The third would replace the Rhododendron on the Point Defiance run.

Assuming funding comes through, two 144-car ferries would come online in 2014 to replace the Evergreen State and allow the tiny Hiyu to retire from its role as backup boat.

Looking even farther into the future, the Legislature has committed to replacing boats as they age. That would mean the construction of five more 144-car ferries between 2029 and 2031 to sub out Evergreen and Super Class ferries.

As it stands, WSF’s operations deficit would run to $127 million over the next 16 years. On the capital side, it would be in the red $936 million after 16 years and roughly $3 billion by 2031, if the vessel replacement schedule was maintained.

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