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

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka. Credit: 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.” 

Asked why environmental improvements should go hand-in-hand with the reorganization of transportation, Agnew said, “this goes far beyond the traditional transportation lobby. Everybody’s concerned about cleaning up Puget Sound. It’s easier to get support for a tax if people see benefits for both the environment and transportation. The nexus is that cars pollute. 

“Let’s use [the governor’s proposal] as a springboard for having a real discussion of the issues and regionalism, and the method of investing in the infrastructure,” he said, but with the caveat that the concept of regionalism, while it offers a broad horizon of possibilities, “should not be sacrificed on this ferry problem.”

A press release laying out the senators’ proposed reforms did not use the words “taxes” or “district.” Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, was quoted in the release saying “it’s time for us to take a different tack.” 

Those looking for a less threatening solution than Gregoire’s also include Howie Rosenfeld of Friday Harbor, a San Juan County Council member and chairman of the San Juan ferries’ advisory committee, one of eight in the WSF system. He likes the governor’s idea of shifting control of the system toward the counties, but said, speaking for the committee, “We’re totally against taking it [the ferry system] completely or even partially out of the state highway system. We don’t understand why the ferries are being picked on.”

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. Can ferry-dependent San Juan County have it both ways, burdening the state — as some would see it — with the WSF subsidies but gaining more local control over operations? 

Reps. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo) and Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island) seem to think so. They introduced a bill earlier this month to set up a Washington State Ferries Commission that would take over the State Transportation Commission’s ferry oversight duties. A clear majority of the commission’s members would be drawn from the eight ferry advisory committees. 

What role a shift in governance might play in Haugen’s package is not immediately clear, but there’s no shortage of opinion on the matter. 

“Shifting the governance,” Rosenfeld says, “can be done without . . . saddling local districts. There should be transportation equity — everyone should be treated equally. There should be some dedicated funding for all the state’s transportation needs. I think people are willing to have a tax for it, so long as the tax is fair. The citizens need to step up.” 

Like Agnew, he noted that voters are more inclined to approve a levy when they understand “what we’re going to give you” in return. 

The relationship between WSF and the residents of Rosenfeld’s sea-encircled county brings to mind a marriage that endures through better and worse. Sources of dissatisfaction are many. Fuel efficiency of WSF’s car ferries — the provider runs no passenger-only services — is worse than that of any other mass-transit mode. It’s hard for users to understand why a ferry needs four deckhands to tie up a boat — a matter of securing two large ropes — and wave vehicles onto a dock. Many see disadvantages in the proposed reservation system, when trips to the mainland often spring from household or personal needs that require a sprint to the ferry terminal.

Regardless of such conversation fodder, however, the on-board vox populi also suggested that the ferry system is about as good as could be expected. By a 2-to-1 margin, passengers interviewed for this story were ready to accept a reduction in service, if the system could no longer afford as many runs as it has now. And only four of 13 people felt that more runs were needed, in spite of the San Juans’ growing population. Service interruptions are very rare. Is the current service adequate?

“How many people are on this ferry?” one woman asked rhetorically. The ferry in question, the Chelan, accommodates 124 vehicles but was carrying two dozen at most on this early evening, weekday run to Lopez Island, and fewer than 50 passengers, as opposed to its capacity of 1,076.

The ferry system is “a lot better than it used to be,” Rosenfeld said. Asked if he felt the system still contained trimmable fat, he said, “I’m not in a position to know that, I don’t see the inside of things.”

Trimming fat, however, is the primary intent of the legislation Haugen and her colleagues are presenting. Among the targets is the Marine Employees Commission, which has been criticized as setting ferry workers’ wages too high. The commission costs the state $235,000 a year to operate, according to Haugen’s office; the legislative package would abolish it.

The bills would prohibit collective agreements with ferry employees from exceeding other public employees’ contracts in terms of many fringe benefits, even cutting out free ferry rides for system employees not working or heading to work. The package of bills includes one sponsored by Rep. Jeff Morris (D-Mount Vernon) that would privatize some management functions, an idea Gregoire has rejected. 

Given Haugen’s position, her voice may speak loudest in settling the ferry system’s fate, at least for the next biennium. “It’s the governor’s job to start the conversation,” she wrote in a recent blog posting on the ferry issue, “but it’s the Legislature’s job to finish it.”

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