If the world were flat, one might assume that Washington's ferry system is about to sail off its edge. Recent pronouncements from Washington State Transportation secretary Paula Hammond and assistant secretary David Moseley have forecast a severe downsizing of Washington State Ferries (WSF) if prevailing financial assumptions hold true and the Legislature can't come up with quite a few more dimes for the system's tin cup.
History and political reality might suggest a less drastic future for the ferry system. But the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) leadership has started the discussion in stark terms.
In a presentation to Senate and House transportation committees at the start of the current legislative session, Hammond concluded that, absent new revenues, the system would have to eliminate six of its 11 routes altogether — Anacortes-Sidney, Port Townsend-Keystone, Seattle-Bremerton, Southworth-Fauntleroy, Southworth-Vashon, and Point Defiance-Tahlequah. Two other routes would see service cutbacks. A motorist from Southworth would have to go to Seattle to catch a ferry to Vashon, while a driver heading from Port Townsend to Oak Harbor would have to detour through Kingston and Edmonds. About a third of the 23-vessel fleet would go into mothballs, and the state would shutter six terminals.
At a recent Seattle roundtable on passenger-only ferries, Moseley, who runs Washington State Ferries (WSF), furnished more details. He presented a September 2011 accounting by which the ferry system will be running in the red by the 2013-2015 biennium. Two funds that have propped up WSF operations for years (since the 2000 abolition of the motor vehicle excise tax as a funding source) will likely end up with $36 million less than needed.
And the numbers may be headed further south. The governor's December supplemental budget revised the anticipated shortfall upward, to more than $70 million. The deficit will soar to close to $300 million in 2015-2017, in Moseley's accounting, but the corresponding figure in the governor's update was over $375 million.
In an interview with Crosscut, Moseley said that Hammond's scenario would translate into a 40 percent reduction in the provider's approximately 450 daily sailings.
But is this a do-or-die crisis, or an aggressive lobbying gambit?
AAA Washington lobbyist Dave Overstreet didn't minimize the threat to the thousands of motorists who use the system daily, but he was hardly hitting the panic button over the Hammond scenario. “I don''t think they'd cut any routes altogether,” he told Crosscut, “but I can see them cutting the service back, on the number of crossings.”
Still, he said, “we take [Hammond's scenario] seriously.”
In an e-mail interview, Senate Transportation Committee chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) didn't mince words: “As long as I’m here, no [routes] will be cut. Period. I’d cut back on road maintenance before I’d cut a ferry. I wouldn’t want to do that, but if that’s my only choice, people can drive on a bad road and still get where they’re going. They might have to drive slower and be more careful, but they’ll still get there.”
State law essentially treats the ferries as toll bridges, as links within the highway system. The ferry routes, were they roads, would represent about 1.4 percent of the state’s highway network. In the last biennium, however, WSF operations received about 4.5 percent of state funding for highways, while ferry capital needs took another 8 percent.
The motor vehicle and multimodal accounts, the two funds involved in supporting WSF operations, are at the crux of the debate. The former, which has accounted for 64 percent of the funding transfers in the last decade, is earmarked for roads and streets. The latter serves a range of transportation purposes, with the Legislature normally determining the apportionment.
But the fuel-tax receipts that fund roughly half of the motor vehicle account are dropping as people drive less and the use of hybrid and electric cars grows. Plenty of other transportation funding targets are meanwhile clamoring for more money, too, as “Fiscal crisis!” continues to be the battle cry all over Olympia.
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