WSF, city need each other

While we like the notion that island life should be a bit more relaxed and informal than big-city goings on, we’re a bit boggled by the story, reported elsewhere in this issue, that for almost a decade, the city hasn’t been paying Washington State Ferries for the ferry-terminal parking facility known locally as the “city lot.”

We’re not talking about token sums of money, either. The city has been hauling in something like $300,000 in annual revenue. And while it incurs some costs, it’s clear that the terminal lot is a significant source of profit, all coming from land that the city doesn’t own.

How could anyone suppose WSF wouldn’t finally wise up and lay claim to the pay box?

According to city finance director Ralph Eells, the city was paying WSF $1,700 per month in rent, but a decade ago, WSF agreed that we could keep all the money, so long as we used it for road projects that benefitted traffic flow around the terminal ferry.

Somehow, though, nobody can find written evidence of that phenomenally good deal. Eells says a WSF employee, now retired, told him the ferry system had signed. But if the city ever got a signed copy, it can’t find it now. And WSF – this should come as no surprise – now says it never approved that deal. It wants some $180,000 in back rent, and wants to take over parking lot operations.

What can be done? Probably not a lot. While it might be possible to argue over whether the purported no-rent agreement was valid in the absence of a written contract, that would, at best, spare the city from repaying past rent. There seems little argument that the ferry system is entitled to pull the plug on that deal and take over the lot in the future – the city has no any leverage on that issue.

If the parking lot were an isolated, one-shot deal, we’d say “badly done, Bainbridge,” lick our wounds and move on.

But wait, there’s more.

What about the Eagle Harbor maintenance yard? The ferry system may move its work elsewhere, but only if the five-acre property can be put to profitable use. What uses can be made of the property depend on what the city will permit.

What about the boat haulout facility that WSF owes to Bainbridge Islanders, after pushing out a popular, privately owned facility when the state condemned land to expand its own maintenance yard?

What about WSF’s plans to turn its terminals into revenue generators? With Bainbridge as its busiest stop other than Colman Dock in Seattle, it’s an attractive target – but again, the city would have to agree.

What about Bainbridge’s long-range dream, contained in the Winslow Master Plan, to see the ferry parking go underground, to be replaced by high-density residential and commercial development? Wouldn’t that ultimately provide more revenue to WSF than a parking lot?

Then there’s terminal traffic, and all the safety and convenience issues involved there.

For better or worse, Bainbridge Island and WSF are stuck with each other. We’re partners for life, not parties to one-time commercial transactions. Instead of battling over each separate issue, the city should sit down with WSF and discuss our conjoined future.

We need them. They need us.

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