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With the House funding bill and the Gregoire plan both on the rubbish heap, the question of reliable long-term financing persists. The proposal for a ballot measure, by which a simple majority of voters could enact new transportation taxes that would otherwise require a two-thirds majority in the legislature, will have to be finalized in the 2012 legislative session. Haugen and House Transportation Committee chair Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) are pushing the proposal.
Washington's U.S. senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with fellow Democrat Rep. Rick Larsen and both of Alaska's senators, have meanwhile reintroduced federal legislation that would provide WSF with at least $46 million in funds annually through 2018. The bill, the U.S. Ferry Systems Investment Act, was introduced but not passed in 2009. It would get around the federal Marine Highways Act, which WSF cannot use because of state policy mandating that WSF ferries be built in Washington state. The fiscal situation in the other Washington, however, would seem to jeopardize the bill's prospects.
In an email statement, Larsen declined to speculate on the measure's chances but stressed that he would “continue working with my colleagues from other ferry districts around the country to include our priorities in the next surface transportation authorization bill,” referring to the pending renewal of another measure, the multi-year Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act.
Howie Rosenthal, who chairs the San Juan Islands Ferry Advisory Committee and sits on the San Juan County Council, expressed disappointment in the last-minute collapse of the state-fee funding measure. “I don't know why they couldn't come up with anything," he said. "A lot of those fees haven't been raised in 25 or 30 years.”
Still, he continued, “at least we came through with no service cuts. And we are going to get another superferry. That's great. My major concern is the next biennium. They've kicked the can down the road for not only ferries, but all state transportation — projects are not properly funded. Something has to be done. There has to be some new revenue source. Obviously in this political climate they didn't want to go there.”
As for the possible 2012 ballot question, he said that voter approval “is going to be difficult" but that "there are other possibilities — raising fees, restoring the motor-vehicle excise tax. They need to get away from the gas tax.”
Gas-tax revenues have helped prop up WSF since the loss of motor-vehicle excise tax revenue, but those are diminishing as people drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, or switch over to electric or hybrid cars.
For those seeking a well-capitalized ferry system with the resources to fund everyone's wish list, the message from Olympia thus continues to be unwelcome: There are no easy answers.
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