Change works for anything – even ferries

State Rep. Christine Rolfes likes to say that while some politicians want to change the world, her goal is to merely revamp Washington State Ferries. In other words, her political world, since it has been her primary concern since being elected two years ago.

As a member of the House Transportation Committee, the former Bainbridge Island city councilwoman (2000-05) is hopeful that the Legislature can engender a cultural metamorphosis of this bloated bureaucracy during the next few years. Many others have failed over the last several decades to reshape this officialdom of mismanagement and inefficiency, but the harmonic alignment of events with the presence of people such as Rolfes may make a transformation possible.

For many years the system has been a corpulent ship wallowing in a stormy sea, staying afloat, despite one navigational blunder after another, because of an annual transfusion of its lifeblood – the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. When legislators pulled the MVET umbilical in 2000, the state’s Transportation Commission unabashedly decided there’s more than one way to drain the public and turned to ferry users. Fees were increased by 20 percent in 2001 and then 6 percent annually for the next five years before the Legislature finally awakened last year from a deep sleep and froze ferry fares and all capital funding projects.

That’s when Rolfes and other Puget Sound legislators started their push to reform the 2006 long-term plan, which was based on inflated ridership numbers and other misjudgments. For instance, the 2006 plan and its call for numerous quixotic capital projects was based on a 70 percent overall growth of riders annually through 2030. Fact or fiction? Actually, the ridership rate – especially the motorized one – has been dipping for a few years, due primarily to the ever-increasing fares and the economy. Currently, the ridership growth rate is about 37 percent, roughly half of what was predicted.

A draft of the Legislature’s new plan won’t go public until October and won’t be solidified until the 2009 legislative session, but there are indications that the housecleaning will be meticulous. The strategy is to restructure the system by controlling costs, cutting fat from management, emphasizing service, analyzing operations and using realistic projections when planning for the future. In bureaucratese, that means maximizing efficiency and ensuring that the revenue stream pays expenses and is sufficient before expanding the system.

It also means, in with the new and out with the old guard. There has been a new hiring of top managers, most of whom, not coincidentally, are fresh to the ferry system. But there is no doubt that the Legislature, not the Transportation Commission or the system it commands, is running the show these days. For example, David Moseley, the new WSF boss, said several times – while mingling with the public during his first month on the job – that a new source of revenue (a tax, methinks) may be needed to take the pressure off ferry users. Rolfes has good things to say about Moseley, but she isn’t convinced that another wellspring of greenbacks is the answer.

Preliminary investigations, she said, indicate that the system has been overfunded primarily because it has been needlessly oversized, not to mention overdetermined to make sure money kept overflowing into its coffers. She said that while looking deep into the 400-million-dollar hole that was called the 2006 long-term plan, it was discovered that many of the forecasts were based on previous accounting miscalculations. When they looked up estimates for replacing terminal components, remodels and other endeavors, for example, they found $100 million that had been spent over a 16-year period that didn’t need to be disbursed. Oops.

Ah yes, spending begets more spending. The way of the world.

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