Rockefeller proposes new Department of Ferries

"State Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-23rd District, wants to save the ferry system by separating it from the Department of Transportation and dedicating a portion of the gas tax to the system.And while the measure would adequately fund the current level of ferry service, the price tag - almost 30 percent of general state highway money - might make it a tough sell in the Legislature.This part of the highway system is in dire straits, Rockefeller said, and the gas tax is quite literally the only source of money out there.Rockefeller introduced legislation last week to establish a separate Washington State Department of Ferries. He proposes to fund the system by dedicating to the ferries an additional 3.64 cents of the tax on each gallon of gasoline sold in the state.The gas tax currently is 23 cents, of which the ferry system gets about 1.1 cent. Rockefeller's bill would boost that amount to roughly 4.75 cents.According to state estimates, each penny in gasoline tax raises about $33 million per year. Rockefeller's bill would boost gas tax funding of the ferry system from roughly $36 million per year to just under $150 million.The gas tax money would replace revenue that the ferry system lost from the repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, first by voter passage of Initiative 695 in 1999, then by legislative action.Rockefeller's bill would establish the ferry system as a separate department of state government. The system director would be a cabinet-level appointee, who would serve at the governor's pleasure after state Senate confirmation.The increasing accountability and a dedicated revenue stream make sense, Rockefeller said. I hope that people dependent on the ferry system express their sentiments in favor of this to the Legislature.The biggest roadblock facing the bill might be the competing demands for gas-tax dollars. The plan would boost the ferry system's share of gas tax revenue from less than five percent to more than 20 percent.Under the bill, the amount dedicated to ferries would come from money presently allocated for general state highway purposes, and would absorb roughly one-third of that money.Seeing little likelihood that concrete-and-asphalt highway users would surrender a third of their budget, many observers do not expect Rockefeller's measure to pass.I applaud him for bringing it up, said Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton,the Senate's Democratic floor leader. I would be surprised if the bill gets out of the House, but if it gets over here to the Senate, we'll try to give it a hearing. "

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