It's anticlimactic, but it's official: King County starts operating the Vashon Island-to-downtown- Seattle foot ferry today (Sept. 28). As a Vashon resident, I take some interest in these seemingly purely bureaucratic matters. But since the whole issue has gotten into the King County Executive's race, lots more folks are paying attention as well.
King County has paid the state to operate the Vashon foot ferry since last year. Next year, the county will start operating the West Seattle water taxi service that it has contracted out to Argosy Cruises since 1997. The West Seattle service is currently seasonal, and this year it will only run into October. In 2010, it will run year-round. The Vashon service has been re-branded as part of the King County Water Taxi.
King County started wading into these unfamiliar transportation waters two years ago. The year before, 2006, the Washington legislature passed a law that enabled counties to create ferry districts. Ferry funding had depended heavily on the car tab fees that were slashed after voters passed Initiative 695 in 2001. The state supreme court ruled the initiative unconstitutional, but the legislature quickly enacted the law that voters had tried to pass. Without a share of the car-tab fees, the state's ferry system, including the expensive passenger-only boats, had no dedicated source of funding. The state subsequently dropped passenger-only service to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton.
The legislature decided to fund the Vashon passenger ferry to 2008, after which the service would keep going only if a county ferry district took it over: If King County wanted a passenger-only boat to Vashon, King County could damn well pay for it. The legislation allowed the county to raise a whopping 75 cents per thousand from all property owners in the new special taxing district.
In April 2007, the King County Council voted to create a countywide ferry district. Seven months later, sitting as the ferry district board of directors, the council voted to impose a property tax of 5.5 cents per $1000 for a ten-year program that would involve taking over the Vashon and West Seattle runs and developing at least five experimental routes on Lake Washington and Puget Sound.
During the recent primary campaign for King County Executive, County Council members Kathy Lambert and Larry Phillips — who was a primary candidate — complained that in 2007, Council chair Dow Constantine — who was, of course, a more successful primary candidate — had made it clear that if they didn't vote money for a King County ferry district to benefit Constantine's constituents on Vashon Island and West Seattle, he wouldn't vote money — 10 cents per thousand — for a flood control district to benefit other people's constituents in the flood plains. Constantine said he had never done any such thing. Two other council members claimed he had. Both measures passed by overwhelming 8-1 votes, so Constantine's approval was hardly critical. And anyway, who cares? Trading votes is hardly a novel or reprehensible tactic.
There is, of course, a perfect symmetry in the two measures, which seemed well understood at the time. Both require people who live in some parts of the county to pay substantial taxes to solve problems unique to those who live elsewhere. No one told all those Vashon residents to go live on an island. But then, no one told all those Kent and Auburn residents to go build in a flood plain. Everyone in the county is taxed to support something that only a specific fragment of the population needs. Is this a new concept? “Did you ever look at how the Constitution was created?” asks the ferry district's executive director, Kjris Lund (who also directs the flood control district). “People like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were always trading votes."
When the County takes over the Vashon run, a leased catamaran, the Melissa Ann, which formerly carried passengers in Hawaii, will replace the current sub-Spartan single-hulled Vashon passenger boat, which formerly carried oil-rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico. The Melissa Ann promises more stability, higher speed, and better fuel economy, as well as a less unpleasant ambience. The ferry district plans to lease another boat, which may or may not turn out to be a catamaran, for the West Seattle run. The county solicited proposals for both runs, and it is now deciding what kind of boat it wants for West Seattle. Paulette Norman, acting director of the county's marine division, explains that because the two routes are so different, the same kind of boat may not be appropriate for both.
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