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Legislators counter Gregoire's ferry plan with one of their own

A new bipartisan proposal would focus on trimming costs instead of creating a regional taxing district. And this may come as a surprise: Even some passengers say routes could be trimmed.

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka.

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka. Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)

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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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 24, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Are we to believe that in the middle of the wine tasting celebrating the ridiculously expensive tunnel/park design for downtown, and the ridiculously expensive Disneyland I-520 termination for the Montlake neighborhood, someone yelled..."Hey, we forgot about the ferries!"

Wouldn't you make sure you could pay for the basics before you started ordering the leopard skin couches?

The iniquity created by strong special interests influencing weak elected officials is arguably the biggest problem we have in the country today.

jmrolls

Posted Mon, Jan 24, 11:52 a.m. Inappropriate

"If WSF’s ferry routes were viewed as roads, they would represent about 1.4 percent of the state’s highway system."

Measured how, in miles?

If so, that's a completely inappropriate way to measure where the money should go, since not all miles are equal. Some highway sections - especially across water - are inherently more expensive to construct than others.

How much money is the 520 replacement bridge going to cost on a per-mile basis? What about the AWV replacement?

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge stymies a similar analysis - it's less than a mile long, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet didn't receive a single penny of gas-tax revenue because it was funded entirely by tolls.

Posted Mon, Jan 24, 12:36 p.m. Inappropriate

When money is spent on transportation projects for elements not specifically related to transportation, you could say that the expenditures are not essential…like in, “I think you paid too much.” This “too much” amount for the two projects in question is at least four billion dollars. One of those billion dollars would about cover the current deficit and the projected 10 year shortfall for the ferry system.

This is not a per mile issue. It’s about not spending money for things that are not essential, so as to be able to pay for all rather than some projects.

You know…like making a budget…or sharing a pizza.

jmrolls

Posted Mon, Jan 24, 10:16 p.m. Inappropriate

"In the middle of the wine-tasting, celebrating the ridiculously expensive tunnel/park design and ridiculously expensive Disneylandish I-520 termination at Montlake, someone yelled 'Hey, we forgot about the ferries!'" haha nice one

The "ecological waterfront" design relocates the seawall back maybe 30' however, it won't achieve 'ecological goals' with timber rot, dark shade, severe storm damage and high maintenance.

The goals are better met rebuilding the seawall in its current position needing only short seawall jogs eastward at the aquarium and Old ferry Landing for ideal habitat and sufficient access. Moving the seawall back is not a good idea; pier-like wooden walkways above dark recesses.
Sorry, enviros, I don't get it either, even trying to be moderate about it. The Waterfront desparately needs a basic retrofit with the seawall left in the same location.

Wells

Posted Mon, Jan 24, 11:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Are the legislators and MMH reading these comments and statements?

The ferries are highways. The ferries move as many riders/passengers as does the Viaduct, yet the ferries get treated like the bastard stepchild of Washington.

The ferries transport military personnel, both civilian and military.

Why are the ferries not considered interstate highways, receiving more federal funding?

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

After reading this article one is to think two things: 1) the service Ferries provide--moving people and vehicles--could be done no other way less expensively and there fore there is only one choice, and 2) the San Jaun Islands are the only ones who are ferry dependent.

I don't accept that the only solution is to cut service or raise taxes. I don't beleive that changing governance or keeping the ferry system in the state highway system alone will make any difference. The point of Gregoire's proposal was to force the issue of dealing responsibly with funding the ferries. King County is currently operating a passender only service--it is well run, convenient--and I would be willing to pay about 50% more than they charge because of that.

Bremerton, South Kitsap and Vashon--especially Vashon--are ferry dependent. Port Townend is as well. I would challenge CB Hall to come interview some of those people. We use the ferries in an entirely different way than San Juan Islanders. There are many in my own community--foamers--who cannot see the issues, but only want what they want, too. But this is more than just supporting the tourisim of the San Juans or the life line service of its residents.

Hall should dig a little deeper and understand the differences and write a fuller story.

Brad

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

If WSF’s ferry routes were viewed as roads, they would represent about 1.4 percent of the state’s highway system. The ferries currently receive 2.3 percent of the gas-tax collections that finance that system.
===========
This is a meaningless figure unless its clarified: 1.4% of what? Transportation miles? Vehicle miles? Passenger miles?

In 2009 the Mukilteo-Clinton run carried over 4,000,000 passengers on a ferry run of about 3 miles. That's about 12,000,000 people transportation miles. What state highways carry this volume?

When a highway bridge in eastern Washington is rebuilt, I don't hear people west of the mountains complaining about subsidizing those people relying on state tax dollars for their elite lifestyles caused by their choice of living in a place where transportation can't be provided cheaply. I don't hear them bleating that the highway bridges should be funded exclusively by the people who use them.

Island County pays more in taxes than it receives and the situation with the ferries is a good example of this disparity. All we want is equality.

Steve E.

Posted Tue, Jan 25, 9:37 p.m. Inappropriate

The car ferry works for drivers, but not as well for walk-on passengers. The ferry is failing its transit-oriented intention. Better transit connections at docks, especially @ Alaskan Way Coleman Dock. Better bus routes for all main ferry docks.

Some DOTs are not much interested in mass transit plans at all, seemingly. Some DOTs seem to be against transit. Remember when WsDOT demanded $100 billion of possible Link LRT funding during its 2000 budget bust? Maybe your DOTs in charge is the problem with transit not working well. The bored tunnel is insanely risky. MercerWest too should be formally scrutinized by independent sources. Seattle's transit performance is below standards met by other comparible cities. What the hell is going on up there? Mayor Mcginn is correct to oppose the DBT, correct to advocate for the surface-transit plus fixes for I-5 Alternative.

Wells

Posted Wed, Jan 26, 6:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I tried to make the point that some WashDOT engineering crews don't merit control of your ferries. These don't seem to be interested in any kind of mass transit. They're not that good at planning street traffic either; symptemic of the larger failing.

Mayor Mike is in every way correct to oppose the bored tunnel.
It's insanely risky and will make traffic worse. Wow!

Wells

Posted Thu, Jan 27, 8:45 p.m. Inappropriate

David Moesely is no more the head of WSF than he is the man on the moon. The real WSF CEO is Senator Haugen who has built the worlds most expensive (per car) ferry in the Chetzemoka.

She is now seeking to divert the attention of the public from the ferry funding morass by jumping on the Susanah Frame bandwagon. She is trying to convert every officer in the fleet to management in order to quadruple the size of management.

Her goal is to keep you from thinking about the ferry funding shortfall the legislature created a decade ago when it killed MVET. It is a bait and switch game. She is in a ferry dependent community and must find some tightrope to walk between action and inaction. Otherwise she will have to do her job and solve the core problem, no dedicated source of revenue.

The ferry unions are talking about strikes for the first time in 30 years because the former hairdresser now stands in her mirror pretending to be a legislator from a marine community. I will vote republican next time.

billwasem

Posted Mon, Jan 31, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

As a daily Ferry rider I am glad that finally cuts are being put forth. I have been on the WSF Departments FROG (Ferry Riders Opinion Group) list for their surveys and emails asking for input on how to save money with the Ferry system. I finally gave up with them. Every option, every choice was dropping sailings, eliminating boats, raising fee's, adding taxes, creating tax districts, etc. NEVER, were there options to CUT COSTS with labor reductions, Labor contract revisions, pension reductions, overtime reform, supplier/vendor contract re-negotiations and so forth. These were off the table from the get go. The problem with Liberals in government is they have no stomach for solid actions necessary for the task at hand, if it affects any of their political patron special interests. We must force them down that path, let them kick and scream, but we will get it done by putting the public interest before the political interests of the state appartchik's.

mbednarz

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