Ferry options bill dies in state House

"The only hope for passenger ferry alternatives died in the Legislature this week, when House Transportation Committee co-chairwoman Ruth Fisher refused to let the committee consider it.Substitute Senate Bill 6212 would have allowed private, non-profit or public-private partnerships to take over passenger ferry runs abandoned by Washington State Ferries.It had major labor problems and major funding problems, said Fisher, a Democratic representative from the 27th District in Tacoma, of her decision to shelve the bill through Monday's legislation drop-dead deadline. It asked for an unspecified amount (of money). It didn't even have a number.The Senate passed the bill two weeks ago with all Republicans and 13 Democrats supporting it. Gov. Gary Locke said at the time that he would absolutely sign the bill if it reached his desk.Dick Hayes, executive director of Kitsap Transit and the architect of a passenger-only ferry proposal, said the bill had all the right parts to enable his plan to go forward.But he wasn't upset that the bill died this year, because both parties' budgets will support most ferry operations for another year while long-term solutions are discussed.That gives us time to thoughtfully address this problem, Hayes said. We needed a year to work on the tough issues with private operators and labor unions. We needed a year probably more than we needed anything else.Virtually every state labor union opposed the bill because they believe privatization would drive down wages and benefits. Union leaders wanted current state labor contracts to apply to any future operator of a current state route.David Freiboth, national president of the Inlandboatmen's Union that represents many ferry workers, said labor unions would work to kill the bill by leaning on the friends of labor in the House.Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-35th District, said that's exactly what happened.The labor lobby is the most powerful one in Olympia, Sheldon said. They lobbied (against the bill) very heavily in the House, and many representatives are (financially) supported by labor unions.Fisher, referring to the intense lobbying last week, said, I've got all the union goons in my office.Despite the bill's failure, Hayes said the $250,000 spent on planning his passenger-only ferry alternative wasn't wasted.We used that money to build a (passenger-only plan) framework that we can use in task force discussions this year, he said.Hayes is hopeful that a ferry task force, proposed by Fisher, will pass the Legislature this year. The task force is supposed to plan a long-term ferry solution for the Legislature to consider next year, but Sheldon is skeptical.I haven't seen any task force in the Legislature that has come up with great solutions, he said.Fisher's task force bill has no financial strings attached, she said, so it probably will come up for a last-minute vote in the remaining eight days of the current legislative session.The latest wrangling was a curious turn of events, with Democrat pitted against Democrat in search of a ferry solution. Sheldon said SSB 6212 serves the public interest by opening up options, while Fisher claims the House Democrats' transportation budget is trying to keep transit choices viable.But commuters will be left without any alternatives July 1, when Washington State Ferries plans to slash service, unless Democrats and Republicans reach a compromise to fund ferries in the coming year."

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