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Ferry Special Report: Local lawmakers join together

Just as the squeakiest political wheels often end up with the funding grease, those lawmakers shouting about the need for increased support for Washington State Ferries could end up wasting much of their breath.

People have been complaining about the ferries for some time, as boats age and costs rise. This year, however, both the public and public servants are coalescing into a single voice and approaching the legislature with its concerns. The bad news is that diminishing funds and a stagnant economy decrease the chances for success.

This hasn’t diminished the will to fight. Supporters are providing a coordinated political effort, knowing that even if funding is not forthcoming, at least the session will end with a plan in place.

“The ferries are just nice to have around if you’re just living here in normal times,” said 26th District Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor). “But we’re in a recession, and the ferries are what keeps jobs and businesses running. So we need to make sure that the ferries and the roads work together to get people where they need to go.”

Kitsap residents are accustomed to long commutes. One extreme hypothetical is the trip from Bainbridge Island to Microsoft in Redmond, which requires a bus to the ferry, then another bus to work.

If the ferry system wasn’t in place, this hypothetical worker would need to pass through Tacoma, driving his or her own vehicle. This increases intangibles like time and stress, as well as road wear and emissions.

So taking the ferries out of the equation or decreasing their usefulness has a long-term negative impact on the region.

“If you look at the situation in an ecological context, you’ll come to a different conclusion,” said North Kitsap Commissioner Steve Bauer. “If we cut the Bremerton and Southworth routes, it will add to pollution, influence the climate and increase global warming.”

There are some harsh realities. We will pay to improve the ferry system now, or later.

The old boats will stop working soon enough, as the new ones become steadily more expensive. No matter what these costs, there isn’t enough in the treasury to pay the tab.

“We don’t have the money to run the kind of behemoth system that WSF was proposing in the past with grand terminals and additional boats on busy runs,” said 23rd District Rep. Christine Rolfes, (D-Bainbridge Island). “But we do have the money to run a thoughtful system that benefits the economy of the entire region.”

One “thoughtful” idea Rolfes has originated advocates striking down the requirement to build boats in Washington state. This protectionist attitude, she feels, costs the state millions of dollars.

Local lawmakers point to the chairs of the House and Senate Transportation Committees — Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) — as those holding the purse strings. While neither needs to be convinced of WSF’s critical role in the state, they are not so sure about where the funding will originate.

Clibborn said the system will need a new funding stream and cannot be subsidized by the general fund.

This could come from a tax increase that could be imposed by the Legislature, or even approved by the voters.

Still, she said it’s not likely to be approved during this session, which means the system will just limp along for the foreseeable future.

Like any government agency, the ferry system could spend as much as it is given, even without waste.

It can replace the boats, increase service and lower fares. To become more like highways, however, the first necessity is to change how the ferries are subsidized by the users.

How much the system actually needs to stay afloat will be determined by a ferry work group, which began meeting regularly this week and is expected to quantify exactly what the system needs and, more to the point, what it will cost.

Clibborn hopes at least some of these goals will be addressed by the current Legislature, even if solutions are a year or two down the road.

“We need to plan a goal for the ferry system and how big of a gap we need to fill,” Clibborn said. “But there probably will have to be a new tax.”

The political maelstrom began last month, when WSF presented two ideas, labeled Plan A and Plan B.

Simply put, they respectively proposed that service either stay at current levels or face drastic cuts on all but the Bainbridge Island routes.

Several legislators feel these plans are not serious, and only existed to get the discussion started. Or more cynically, WSF made Plan B so horrendous that the public would accept Plan A.

In any case, reaction motivated the creation of a Plan C (for “citizens”), which Seaquist is spearheading with the input from a series of community meetings.

Twenty-sixth District Sen. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) feels the only answer will come from a solution that spreads the burden throughout the commuters, ferry-dependent communities and taxpayers.

Within this framework, he can’t resist going help but go nautical. “When it comes to the ferry system,” he said, “the boat has been heading in the wrong direction. I believe we need to right the ship, not sink it.”

While the big issues are getting most of the attention, 23rd District Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo) feels that little things mean a lot. She has pushed to end the time limit on ferry tickets, noting that “gift cards don’t expire.”

And she favors the creation of a single ferry advisory board, in addition to one for each route.

Neither Appleton nor 23rd District Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island) feel that ferry support is an east vs. west issue. “There is some competitiveness between the different parts of the state but it’s clear what’s good for one part of the state is good for all of us,” Appleton said. “It’s all about transportation and getting goods to market.”

There are no sure things on this particular boat, except that the ferry system’s supporters won’t get everything they ask for. Accordingly, all legislative ferry advocates are poised to adjust their expectations.

“We need to sustain the ferry system and can’t let it go to ruin,” Rockefeller said. “But the question may be what we need to give up in order to keep it going.”

This is one part of a four-part feature on Washington State Ferries. Also see:

Imagine no ferries | Commuters follow strict routine | WSF plan motivates riders

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