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Kitsap legislators close ranks on ferry issues

"As the clock struck 10 a.m. Jan. 4, Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-23rd District, awaited the arrival of her colleagues - the eight other lawmakers who represent one of the three legislative districts in Kitsap County.Just four days before the start of the 2001 legislative session in Olympia, Sheldon and her guests spent the next hour discussing the future of transportation, water rights, telecommunications and economic development in Kitsap County before scooting off to other meetings.The 26th District delegation of Republican Sen. Bob Oke and Democratic Reps. Pat Lantz and Brock Jackley were reportedly away on prior commitments, but every other Kitsap County legislator attended the session. Included were 35th District Democrats Sen. Tim Sheldon, Rep. William Eickmeyer and Rep. Kathy Haigh, along with 23rd District Reps. Phil Rockefeller, a Democrat, and Beverly Woods, a Republican.I called the meeting because we firmly believe that if we don't work together this session, we won't get anywhere, Sheldon said. Together, we have to make the case for the Washington State Ferries system because no other state legislators will support ferries without the nine of us articulating our case.Sheldon says the Kitsap group plans to meet at least once a week over the next few months to set goals and hash out philosophical differences, if any.Differences could be few and far between, said Sheldon, since concerns near and dear to the hearts of Kitsap residents tend to cross party lines.Kitsap Democrats and Republicans rarely will disagree that ferry service must continue for the economic well-being of the county.We are fighting for the very survival of the ferries at this point, said Sheldon, anticipating a long, drawn out legislative session which begins Jan 8.Kitsap lawmakers particularly are fighting to continue existing passenger-only ferry service from Brem-erton to Seattle and from Vashon Island to Seattle, she said. Unless the Legislature and Gov. Gary Locke can craft a budget plan for ferries, WSF will go out of service after June 30, 2001.We put a band-aid on it after the last session and now we need a permanent fix for ferries, said Sheldon.The state House has 49 members from each party, and Democrats hold only a slim advantage in the Senate. This could create gridlock under any other circumstance, but Kitsap legislators still have a decent shot at securing a serviceable budget for the ferry system.Gov. Gary Locke proposed a $321.2 million 2001-2003 operating budget for WSF in late December. Nearly $11.5 million of that budget calls for funding the continuation of weekday, passenger-only ferry service in Bremerton and Vashon Island. Kitsap legislators, along with many WSF officials, are keeping a special eye on the governor's proposal and recommendations made by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation, as well as the Legislative Joint Task Force on Ferries.The governor's total ferry-operations package was $28 million more than the operating budget proposal submitted to the governor by the state Transportation Commission. That's because the Locke called for saving passenger-only ferry service, accounted for skyrocketing fuel costs and tagged on other maintenance costs associated with existing services.Locke also proposed a $180 million capital budget for WSF over the next two years. Among other preservation projects, the governor would like to see WSF buy four vessels to replace those that are decades old and don't meet current U.S. Coast Guard standards. The governor's plan also calls for a potentially substantial fare hike. Sheldon said that fast passenger-only ferry fares will have to increase, especially since passenger ferries currently benefit from an 80 percent state subsidy.The bottom line is we need to maintain the current WSF services and level of services, said Sheldon. "

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