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Ferry task force backs proposed fare hike

"The state ferry system does not hold a favored place in line for legislative funding.So warned, the Joint Task Force on Ferries Dec. 4 recommended a package of measures aimed at preserving at least the present level of service for the next decade.The Blue Ribbon Transportation Committee Report last week said we need to find $60 billion in new money for transportation, said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, co-chair of the Task Force and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.That's a staggering amount, and it does not include any money for new ferry service, she said, cautioning the group to be modest in its recommendations.The package included strong medicine for ferry users, as the task force endorsed - albeit somewhat grudgingly - the substantial fare increases recommended last week by the state's Tariff Policy Committee.Under that proposal, walk-on round trip fare for central sound runs including Bremerton and Bainbridge Island would jump from $3.70 to $4.20 beginning next year, and hit $6.50 in 2006. Basic car/driver fares would climb from its current $6.50 to $7.50 next year, and $12 in 2006.Those increases will reduce, but not eliminate, the system's need for general-fund revenue to subsidize operations.The task force was created by the Legislature last year after repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, first by voter passage of Initiative 695 then by legislative action after the ballot measure was found unconstitutional. Loss of MVET revenue blew a $750 million annual hole in the state budget, with much of the loss falling on transportation.The group's recommendations will become part of the final report of the Blue Ribbon Commission, a panel the predated I-695 and was charged with making overall recommendations on the state's transportation needs.In a preliminary report released last week, the Blue Ribbon Commission estimated that the state needs to spend some $150 billion on transportation over the next 20 years, which it said could come in roughly equal proportions from new efficiencies, existing revenue streams and new revenues.The commission report did not separately set out the projected needs of ferries, so it is uncertain how much, if any, of the spending it envisions would go to WSF.The Ferry Task Force, meeting for the last time Dec. 4 in Seattle, said maintaining current levels of service for the next decade will require spending $135 million on operations and $164 million per year on capital projects - maintenance and replacement of boats and terminals.Existing funding sources - federal money and a portion of the gasoline tax - provide only about $30 million of that money, leaving the Legislature to plug a $100 million hole.Unfortunately, we cannot say with certainty that the capital spending being recommended will assure service at the current level, said Terry McCarthy, acting director of Washington State Ferries.What we can say for certain is that if we do not get that money, we will not be able to maintain service, he said.Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, who served on the Task Force's capital-needs subcommittee, said that he was cautiously optimistic despite the magnitude of the funding needs.The report illustrates well the needs the system faces, he said, adding that he hoped the Legislature would be responsive.The fask force did endorse the schedule of higher ferry fares laid out by the Tariff Policy Committee of the Transportation Commission, but not without dissent.Fares currently provide 62 percent of the operational costs of car ferries. The increases will bring that yield to 80 percent of the ferry system's operations costs when they become effective.The proposal that drew fire was the plan to immediately double the fare for foot ferries - where present fares only recover 30 percent of costs.Rep. Beverly Woods, R-23rd District, said that the increase should be spread out over more than six years. But the WSF's McCarthy disagreed.A six-year phase-in is our best case, McCarthy said. A lot of the Legislature would say do it in two years, or get rid of the foot ferries altogether.The task force threw cold water on one system improvement - creation of passenger-only ferry run between Kingston and downtown Seattle. Private industry has no interest in operating a passenger-only system, according to Darrell Bryan of Clipper Navigation, a task force member.Using our operating costs, we would have to charge a $10 fare from Kingston to break even, he said. But if we charged that fare, a lot of people would drive 10 miles to Bainbridge Island and take the ferry from there.And the task force rejected a recommendation that would have asked the Legislature to expand foot-ferry service as soon as money became available.This recommendation pits one group of users against another group by suggesting that expanded passenger-ferry service should be the top priority, Haugen said. She said that for many communities, the top priority is to restore lost auto service. "

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