Overhauling the ferry system and ensuring accountability

Last week the Central Kitsap Reporter published a column written by a state senator from Maple Valley critiquing decisions to build new ferries in the state of Washington. The senator from East King County began by comparing our ferry system to a bad Woody Allen joke.

For those of us who represent ferry-served communities in the West Sound, the current state of the ferry system is nothing to be made light of. The poor condition of the boats and the financial condition of the system are the result of years of neglect and it will take time and bipartisan, regional collaboration to make the changes that we need to see.

As transportation leaders, our goal during the past two years has been to focus reform efforts institutionally, so that a revamped system will be strong and sustainable over the long-term. That’s why I and other Kitsap County legislators created a Five-Point Plan focusing on controlling costs, overhauling management, providing reliable service and safety, building for the future and providing accountability.

This session, we passed SB 6932 to further these goals and to demand a strategic vessel preservation and maintenance program and a plan for vessel deployment, rebuild and replacement. Every member of the Washington Legislature, Democrat and Republican, supported this bill.

Many of us also were concerned about the costs being imposed on riders living in ferry communities, so we continued the freeze on ferry fares, which will remain in place until at least the fall of 2009, when the new system plans will be put in place. To help maintain these fare levels and increase accountability, we cut costs by reducing $5 million in headquarters staffing, $106 million in overstated terminal preservation costs and saved $75 million more over the system’s 16-year financial plan.

We are in need of new vessels, and we made sure that $368 million was available for purchasing them in this year’s state transportation budget. Washington has a strong tradition of shipbuilding, and the industry supports thousands of working families in our state. Building these vessels close to home not only invests in our local economy and helps sustain this critical industry, but gives local officials greater oversight in construction and allows for savings in maintenance costs, instead of sending the boats across the country.

I hope these boats will be built in Washington, but we need to make sure the new vessels are both safe and cost-effective for the people depending on them. Recently, the Washington State Ferries turned down the single bid received for the boat designed to serve the Port Townsend-Keystone run because it was too high, and they have begun looking at alternative boats and design and construction methods.

The accountability measures we put in place are starting to work. We have a long road ahead of us, but the continued vitality of our region depends upon the success of our efforts.

Christine Rolfes represents the 23rd Legislative District in the Washington State House of Representatives. She and her legislative assistant, Sarah Miller, can be reached at (360) 786-7842 or rolfes.christine@leg.wa.gov.

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