A bipartisan group of legislators led by state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, took center stage Monday (Jan. 24) in the ongoing debate over the remake of Washington State Ferries (WSF), when they rolled out a package of bills designed to trim the ferry system's costs. The reforms would adopt new operating efficiencies and bring employee compensation into line with that of other state workers.
“It's no secret that the ferries aren't run as efficiently as they should be,” Haugen said in a statement. “It's not a good use of our taxpayer dollars to place ferry employees above our other hard-working public employees.”
The current debate began Jan. 6, when Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed a new regional taxing district to help fund WSF. The proposal, modeled on Sound Transit, has attracted precious little support, with Sen. Haugen among those saying nay. The governor's spokespeople have since characterized her proposal as a discussion-starter.
All observers acknowledge, however, the ferry system's challenges — in particular a lack of capital to replace aging boats — and the governor's initiative, if nothing else, went beyond griping to propose a source of funding to address the deficiencies.
The proposed taxing district would encompass all or part of the eight counties that have state ferry terminals, as well as Clallam County, which, while not directly served, is viewed as “ferry-dependent,” in the words of Gregoire spokesman Scott Whiteaker. The district would draw its revenues from either property or sales taxes. Currently, fares cover 65 percent of WSF's operating budget, while the state subsidizes the remainder. The governor excluded further service cuts as a remedy, saying “adequate funding” is the only alternative.
A vigorous give-and-take has ensued over the dilemma of maintaining the nation's largest ferry system at a time when most view new taxes as anathema.
Haugen and five other Puget Sound senators responded immediately to the governor's gambit, complaining that ferries are part of the state highway system, comparable to the planned Highway 99 tunnel through downtown Seattle, or Spokane's North-South Corridor between Interstate 90 and Highway 2. The senators did not touch on the issue of how state highway funding could be increased to purchase new ferries or overhaul old ones, and Monday's rollout likewise included no call for new taxes or taxing districts.
Passengers interviewed recently on ferries around the San Juan Islands sided more closely with Haugen's view than Gregoire's. Only two passengers approved of Gregoire's proposal, while 11 gave it the thumbs-down, focusing, as Haugen and her colleagues have, on the need to keep the ferries within the state highway system. Several people noted the need to reorganize the current service rather than simply looking for more cash. Gregoire's position that service cuts had already reached their limit did not get wide support.
“To sit around and just tear [the ferry system] apart doesn’t make any sense,” one passenger said. He called for “creative thinking” to resolve the funding problems that have plagued the huge system since voters administered last rites to the motor vehicle excise tax, a key funding source, in a 1999 referendum.
The reforms proposed Monday have the backing of the chairmen and ranking minority members of the transportation committees in both the House and Senate. The package, and the reactions to Gregoire's proposal generally, have shifted the discussion from the black-and-white issue of creating a new taxing district to the range of reforms, innovations, and/or new taxes that might give the ferry system what it needs.
Bruce Agnew, director of Seattle's Cascadia Center, which advocates for a variety of regional transportation solutions, agrees that a new taxing district has no chance in the current legislature, but adds nonetheless that “we are well on our way to higher taxes or user fees for transportation users that directly benefit in the Puget Sound region.”
He envisions “a regional district for extraordinary enhancements to the environment and transportation — including county ferry districts and passenger-only ferries, regional rail and transit, and regional electrification efforts for next-generation vehicles. It could partner with tribes to leverage resources for transportation links to gaming venues and clean-up.”
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