Opinion

WSF meetings just exercises in futility | Val Torrens

TORRENS TALK

Last week’s article was an overview of the Washington State Ferries (WSF) meeting held at the Bainbridge Commons. This column is a more in-depth look at what was discussed.

First, the overview of the WSF was presented by assistant secretary David Moseley. He appears to be genuinely interested in good customer service and really wanted to hear from the constituency WSF serves. He even provided his e-mail address (moseleyd@wsdot.wa.gov) and his direct line (206-515-3401) so people can contact him.

Too bad the rest of the meeting was engineered to get responses to ideas that do nothing to relieve the burden on ferry communities. Every single option was either focused on generating more revenue from riders or requiring riders to use the system differently to “balance the load.”

Taking that approach just ignores reality. WSF is really a dual-system, dual-use situation. It is both a marine highway and a mass transit system. It also is a commuter system and a tourist attraction. These different uses require different answers. Unfortunately, that understanding seems to be lacking on the part of staff and certainly the Transportation Commission.

For example, WSF went looking for comparable systems to see how they are run in order to borrow ideas. Good strategy except that there exists nothing like it in the world. So, looking for answers in those places won’t work. The ferry systems that were looked at were: BC Ferries, Istanbul, Turkey, Sweden, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape May, Maritimes and Nantucket. With the exception of Istanbul, all the other ferries were tourist oriented, many operated only part of the year and did not service commuters.

The closest comparison was Istanbul, a city with 12 million residents on boats making a trip less than a mile distant. That means WSF is comparing local ferry use with a city whose population is about double that of our state, the distance traveled is far less so fuel/maintenance costs are far less and the surrounding infrastructure is very different than here.

When queried about the Staten Island (SI) system, WSF said it did not compare as well as Istanbul. Why? The SI system services commuters and visitors. It is mass transit and, until 9/11 security concerns stopped vehicle use, it was a marine highway. The boats operate 24/7 with more boats in use during peak commuter hours. Thanks to former Mayor Giuliani’s “one city, one fare” initiative, the SI ferry has been free since 1997. Could that be the reason? That it doesn’t cost the riders a cent? That certainly gives incentive for people to use the boats and stay off the highways.

When asked how does “balancing the load” achieve a better funding scenario, WSF had no good response. Just having riders rearrange themselves so that runs have similar numbers doesn’t generate revenue. Having more people in off-peak hours so that those times have numbers similar to peak hours is what is needed. But, telling already overburdened communities that WSF wants to turn peak hour traffic into full-day peak traffic is not going to win friends.

Recent articles covering the Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth meetings held by WSF just showed more of the same. All discussion was focused on what WSF wants to do, not what will really meet the needs of the commuters and frequent users. WSF apparently did not take the suggestion generated at the Bainbridge meeting to have a “none of the above” option. That would have allowed people to say “no” to the WSF choices and brainstorm some other ideas. It seems good dialogue is not part of the agenda.

The ferries need help and it is more than what commuters and ferry users should be asked to take on by themselves. It is time the WSF and the Transportation Commission look for a stable funding source that will really help and get a bigger part of the gas tax.

Until some real choices like that are offered, this really is an exercise in futility for participants. It only serves to cover WSF in being able to tell the Legislature that it did what it was directed to do. Too bad it won’t help the riders, the people who really need it.

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