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New ferry bills broader to enable many options

"Bigger is better. That's the message behind ferry bills introduced last week in the House and Senate.State Rep. Phil Rockefeller and Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-23rd District) call their proposals enabling legislation, intended to open up the widest range of potential ferry service options.They'll leave it to service providers to iron out the details. Otherwise, said Sheldon. in this short session, we'd just be overwhelmed.Sheldon presented a substitute bill - a revision of the one heard by the Senate Transportation Committee Jan. 19. She incorporated suggestions from ferry-interested House members, who have been meeting every Monday as an ad-hoc ferry caucus.Her bill allows different kinds of ferry operators - including private companies, transit agencies, non-profit corporations, public-private partnerships and municipalities - to apply for franchise permits to serve routes where the state ferry system has discontinued service. The permit holder can lease ferries and facilities from the state.Sheldon's bill also defines passenger-only ferries as high-capacity transportation, qualifying the service for taxing authority. She expects her substitute bill will be discussed by the Senate Transportation Committee this session.Rockefeller calls his bill a placeholder.There are so many ideas that ferry legislation is sort of a moving target, he said. Rockefeller said he hopes House Transportation co-chairwomen Ruth Fisher (D-Tacoma) and Maryann Mitchell (R-Federal Way) will move their committee toward general legislation to facilitate different kinds of ferry plans.One way to do that is making new rules about how private agencies may use public facilities. The state constitution forbids giving away taxpayer money or facilities, but Rockefeller said it's possible to allow private agencies to use public resources under certain conditions.His bill could answer a lot of questions about the proposed passenger ferry partnership between Kitsap Transit and a private operator. Can public funds be used on projects that bring in private partners? Can private operators use public resource such as ferry terminals and parking? And should non-state agencies, such as non-profits or transit agencies, have access to state-owned ferry vessels?All of these questions are still up in the air, and all hang over the head of Dick Hayes, Kitsap Transit's executive director. Hayes' proposed public-private ferry partnership inspired Rockefeller's bill in the first place, although Rockefeller doesn't want ferry recovery options limited to that model alone.The myriad proposals will be sorted out by the chairwomen of the House and Senate Transportation committees. So far, Senate committee chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) has formed a work group to study Sheldon's bill, and Rockefeller expects Fisher and Mitchell will work together to choose the rose among some thorny House bills."

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