Evening ferries the first to go

"The three-boat schedule is dead. And so are most evening ferry runs between Bainbridge Island and Seattle, under a schedule released by Washington State Ferries Wednesday.“We’ll still take care of the rush-hour traffic pretty well,” said Forrest Six, chair of the Bainbridge Island Ferry Advisory Committee, “although there’ll probably be people standing up on the boats.”"

  • Monday, November 15, 1999 9:00am
  • News

“The three-boat schedule is dead. And so are most evening ferry runs between Bainbridge Island and Seattle, under a schedule released by Washington State Ferries Wednesday.“We’ll still take care of the rush-hour traffic pretty well,” said Forrest Six, chair of the Bainbridge Island Ferry Advisory Committee, “although there’ll probably be people standing up on the boats.”The service cuts, announced in response to funding lost to Initiative 695, would go into effect in late June, officials said at several West Sound meetings this week.Under the proposal, the daily 7:45 p.m., 9:10 p.m., 10:45 p.m., 12:50 a.m. and 2:10 a.m. runs from Bainbridge Island would be eliminated. The 7 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 9:50 p.m., 12:10 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. departures from Seattle also would be cut. The only late-night runs would depart from Seattle at 1:30 a.m. and from Bainbridge at 2:10 a.m. The vessel in service at those hours would be smaller than the regular Jumbo Mark II ferries now in use, and would be shared by the Seattle-Bainbridge and Seattle-Bremerton runs each night.The Bainbridge Island Ferry Advisory Committee will host an informal open house at the Winslow terminal, tentatively set for the afternoon and early evening of Dec. 7.Displays showing funding loss and service cuts will be arrayed around the terminal lobby, Six said. Ferry officials, including WSF Director Paul Green, are expected to be on hand to hear from riders and answer questions.Six defended the Draconian cuts in light of recent criticism of transit agencies for planned service cuts in the wake of I-695. Several Seattle media outlets spent the week quoting random voters to the effect that state officials are “punishing” voters for approving the initiative.“Honestly, after all my work with the ferry system, I really believe that’s not the case,” Six said. “But they haven’t explored all the possibilities yet, either.”Initiative 695, which garnered about 56 percent support statewide in the Nov. 2 election, eliminates the state Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. With its demise goes 25 percent of the ferry system’s operations budget, and nearly all of its capital budget for ferry maintenance and repairs.State ferry director Paul Green predicted Wednesday that the ferry system will be extinct in three years.“We are so reliant on the (now-defunct MVET), our budget has virtually been gutted,” Green said. “Come summer 2001, if no revenue source is found, we will begin to put an action plan in place to dismantle the system.” Already, officials have started cutting back low-ridership runs around the sound and will eliminate the entire passenger ferry system.Every route would take a hit, and every destination would be affected. On the Kingston-Edmonds run, for example, service will simply stop after 8:40 p.m. each evening.“That means the Bainbridge run will have to pick that up,” Six said.To preserve basic service and meet capital commitments over the next biennium, the ferry system will spend $94 million of its cash reserve and use $31 million in funds previously dedicated to the state’s highways. After that, the WSF piggy bank will be empty. Although some operating costs can be recouped from fares, there will be no way to pay capital costs, replace worn-out boats or maintain terminals.Several state legislators gathered Wednesday to hear the concerns of the Kitsap Connections advisory committee. Although the group was originally assembled to look at alternatives to the Chinook ferry controversy, the question of wakes may become a moot point with no passenger boats actually running.“I think 695 probably impacted this community more than any other community in the state because of the ferries,” said Rep. Kathy Haigh (D-35th District).“The paradigm has shifted for Kitsap,” added Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-23rd District). “The way we’ve done business isn’t working anymore.”The ferry system had decided to axe all passenger ferries, in part because they are not cost-effective. While auto ferries recoup about 60 percent of their operating costs in fares, foot ferries recoup only 10 percent.But that didn’t dampen the committee’s enthusiasm for foot ferries, and Kitsap Transit Director Dick Hayes presented the group with an idea for a public-private foot ferry partnership.It would require a subsidy, such as a local sales tax hike; use of Washington State Ferries’ boats and facilities; more flexibility in labor union agreements; higher fares; and lots of legislative help.But it could work, Hayes said.Bremerton Mayor Lynn Horton suggested a different tack. “Are you legislators willing to talk about privatization?” she asked.“We’re willing to look at any and all options to preserve essential services,” Rep. Phil Rockefeller (D-23rd District) said. But the Legislature would have to approve the use of a state-owned vessel by a private company.Six said he sees privatization as unlikely, in large measure because the area’s venture capital is going into high-tech start-ups and other Internet-related applications.“It’s hard to see anyone coming up with the billions of dollars it would take to buy out the ferry system,” he said, “and I can’t see the Legislature giving it up.”Islanders, Six said, should keep in mind that the service cuts represent a worst-case scenario. By his estimates, a 34 percent, across-the-board hike in fares would cover the deficit in operations, although it would not help the complete loss of the capital budget.“I think our charge now is bigger than we ever imagined,” County Commissioner Charlotte Garrido said of her group’s challenges.”

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