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Gale force ferry service warnings

The ferry Sealth Credit: C.B. Hall

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.

The assumed funding in Hammond’s scenario consists of fares, which defrayed about 66 percent of ferry operations in the 2009-2011 biennium. It also includes other internally generated revenue, as well as dedicated taxes and fees, which together covered a further 14 percent. Ninety-one million dollars in transfers from the motor vehicle and multimodal accounts defrayed the remaining shortfall, or 20 percent of total operating costs. With the transfer funds sailing over the horizon, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a 10-year, $3.7-billion fees package as a partial remedy. Now before the legislature, the package would among other things provide WSF with roughly $100 million for operations annually — enough to keep the system staggering along more or less as it is now.

A separate transportation tax package that could raise such levies as the gas tax is also under discussion, but has been upstaged politically — for the moment, at least — by the governor’s proposal for a half-cent bump in the state sales tax for general revenue enhancement. Both proposals would go to voters.

“We can’t put a transportation tax package out this year,” Sen. Haugen stated, referring to the Legislature. “We’ve pretty much agreed there’s no way we can put both of them out there. We’re going to get a fee package. It may look different than the governor’s. Our package will be similar to last year’s, with some money to offset cuts; it won’t be enough but it will help us at least limp through until we can get more funding.”

Testifying at a legislative hearing on the $3.7-billion package, anti-tax activist Tim Eyman of Mukilteo more than quibbled over the semantics of “taxes” and “fees.” The governor’s proposal, he said, “insult[s] the voters’ intelligence by claiming $3.7 billion isn’t a tax increase, that doesn’t need the two-thirds vote requirement” that is required by a 2010 ballot initiative approved by 64 percent of voters.

On the capital side, a 25-cent-per-fare surcharge imposed by the Legislature last year is expected to cover some costs of bonding for a new 144-car ferry, but replacements of other aging ferries will have to await some other solution. Capital funds provided by past transportation tax packages are nearly exhausted, and the governor’s $3.7-billion package will cover no capital costs. WSF will need to replace six boats over the next 15 years, according to Moseley.

The Seattle roundtable on passenger-only ferries highlighted what some see as a partial solution to WSF’s dilemma. Attendees included representatives from Kitsap Transit, the Port of Kingston, the Port of Port Townsend, and the King County Ferry District, all of which currently operate foot-ferries, or are planning to do so. They are hoping to fill the vacuum left after 2006 state legislation forced WSF to dump its foot-ferry services in favor of its core business, car-ferries.

Advocates note that passenger-only vessels are cheaper to buy and operate than lunker car-carrying boats. Kitsap Transit executive director Dick Hayes told Crosscut that the Rich Passage I, the foot-ferry his agency will begin testing between Bremerton and Seattle later this year, will cost only about $5.3 million dollars to put in the water, with about a million of that for the extraordinary scientific equipment and testing that the boat’s unusual design requires. The figure compares with the $70 million for the latest car-ferries in the WSF fleet. Kitsap Transit expects the boat will cost about $470 an hour to operate, versus the $1,500 or so for a WSF boat. Fares will be comparable to WSF’s tariffs.

But where will the motorists go if the Bremerton-Seattle and other cross-sound car-ferries become history? As much to the point, Kitsap Transit has yet to nail down a source for the subsidy the Rich Passage I would require to begin regular revenue service. The Port of Kingston’s Seattle-Kingston SoundRunner service, meanwhile, is due to run out of subsidy for its operations in December, and prospects for continued funding thereafter are uncertain, according to port executive director Kori Henry. The farebox, she said, is currently covering only 15 percent of operating costs.

While backers of foot-ferries play something of an insurgent’s role, WSF’s woes command a larger audience in Olympia — but that is not to say WSF will get what it wants, or even what it needs. Its sales pitch to the Legislature is part of a larger political drama unfolding over the governor’s $3.7-billion proposal. It is difficult to say whether the ferries’ needs will help propel the Gregoire proposal to enactment, or, given the less-than-unanimous public affections for the ferry system, provide a reason to trim the proposal back or defeat it altogether.

AAA’s Overstreet was less than sanguine over the proposal’s prospects. “It’s in trouble,” he said, “because $2.75 billion would be raised from a barrel fee [on oil refining], which a lot of people in the transportation field feel is a tax, not a fee. That kind of puts that package in jeopardy.” He alluded to the possibility of a far smaller package — at $1.3 billion, barely a third of the governor’s request — originating in the House.

Eyman’s intentions were predictably clear. Speaking for his PAC about all the tax and fee packages under discussion, he told Crosscut, “We don’t want it passed in Olympia, we don’t want it put on the ballot, and, if it goes on the ballot, we’ll do everything we can to encourage voters to vote it down.”

While the political verbiage was thus taking its course, WSF’s Elwha broke down on a recent morning last week. While the problem — in the ship’s software — was relatively minor, WSF had to cancel several sailings. For islanders who’ve seen several service disruptions in recent months, Olympia’s hurry-up-and-wait reactions can be pure frustration.

Howie Rosenfeld, San Juan County Council member and co-chair of the San Juan Islands Ferry Advisory Committee, saw the funding crisis as extending, in the not-too-distant future, to a lot more than ferries. “It’s the entire state transportation system that’s running out of money. It’s going to require a lot of different ways to fund it. A lot of cans have been kicked down the road.”

This story has been updated since it first appeared.

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