Senate budget would maintain foot ferry service

"OLYMPIA - The Senate Transportation Committee sent a meatier-than-expected $3.4 billion transportation package to the full Senate Wednesday, March 21.The substitute budget allocates nearly $510 million to the Washington State Ferries (WSF), including $11.5 million to continue passenger-only ferry (POF) service from Bremerton and Vashon Island to downtown Seattle over the next biennium.We're trying to do everything we can for ferries, said Sen. Bob Oke, R-26th District. We need that fare increase or passenger-only ferries are going to go away.Construction of a second Tacoma Narrows Bridge, however, could be on hold. The bridge and other Public-Private Partnership Act projects must be exempted from a 1962 law prohibiting the state from imposing tolls on roads and bridges that already have been paid for. After speaking with co-Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, Oke said he wasn't optimistic a bill to do so would survive the House.Despite that setback, reaction to the Senate budget from Kitsap legislators was mostly positive.This has to be good news for the commuters who use passenger-only ferries, said Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-23rd District. The original, bare bones $3.2 billion transportation budget didn't fund passenger-only ferries at all. It assumed no new revenue streams and was introduced March 20 by Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. Haugen said future cross-sound foot ferry service hinged on the Transportation Commission's ability to implement across-the-board fare increases of 20 percent, which required an Initiative 601 spending limits waiver. Haugen's committee accomplished that on Wednesday. I-601 limits fare increases to less than 3 percent annually. The Senate budget would preserve existing WSF service in the Puget Sound, devoting $321 million for auto ferry operations, including $14 million for increased fuel costs. Another $189 million would be provided for vessel and terminal maintenance.No funding was allocated to purchase four replacement auto ferry vessels, as recommended by the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation, but more than $5 million in state and federal funds was set aside to purchase a replacement passenger only ferry.The general fund would provide $40 million for ferries, a trend Oke says can't continue.Ferries require a permanent source of funding to replace what was lost from the motor vehicle excise tax, he said.Majority Floor Leader Betti Sheldon, D-23rd District, said she expected the full Senate to vote on the transportation budget as early as Friday. From there, the transportation budget would be on a fast track to the House.Gov. Gary Locke, who publicly threatened to keep lawmakers in session until a transportation package was complete, told legislative leaders earlier last week he was anxious to see a transportation budget on his desk soon. "

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