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Sea change for ferries: National search planned for new leader

The ferry Sealth Credit: C.B. Hall

It will likely take two months or more for a replacement to be found for David Moseley as director of Washington State Ferries. His resignation, announced quietely earlier in the week, becomes effective on April 15.

A nationwide search is planned to replace the man who for six years held what one legislator called "one of the most difficult jobs in state government." His immediate predecessor lasted only three years and it's been unusual for ferry directors to make it to five years.

The new assistant transportation secretary for ferries will be leading a system facing budget difficulties and possible service cuts stemming from the Legislature's inability to put together a long-range transportation revenue package in the past two legislative sessions.

Legislators who worked with Moseley, 66, praised him for his open touch with the public, which included attending countless community meetings, routinely riding ferries, and writing a weekly Internet column for Washingtonians. "He has a very wry sense of humor, which helped him get through a lot of tough situations," said Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Democrat who represents the overwhelmingly ferry-dependent Bainbridge Island.

"He did a good job in an incredibly difficult situation," said Sen. Kevin Ranker, a Democrat who represents the entirely ferry-dependent San Juan Islands.

The difficult situations included a KING-TV investigation into labor abuses among ferry crews, a mass of ferry cancellations last fall because of a lack of crew members, new ferries that tilted slightly when empty, and a lack of strong, long-term revenue sources. But he implemented numerous cultural and organizational changes, and improved relations with the public. He also led a switch of design work on new ferries from in-house to outside contractors, something meant to enable the WSF to concentrate on ferry operations.

Washington Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said in a statement, "David can be proud of his distinguished service at WSF and the many accomplishments he has made while at the helm of the ferry system. … During his tenure, WSF began replacing the many aging boats in the fleet. Six new ferries, including three 64-car Kwa-Di-Tabil class ferries in operation, and now three new 144-car Olympic class are funded and being built, and will soon join the fleet." Peterson also pointed to more than 450 meetings in ferry communities, and praised innovations in the use of online trip-planning tools and an ongoing expansion of a reservation system. 

In his online column, Moseley wrote, "Six years ago when I came to Washington State Ferries it was an agency in crisis…. Recognizing that the Ferry system is in a stronger position than when I came six years ago, I have decided to leave as head of the Washington State Ferries." 

Moseley did not have any maritime experience when he took over in 2008. He had been director of the Seattle Department of Community Development, and then city manager of Steilacoom, Ellensburg and Federal Way. Moseley, the holder of a master's of divinity degree from Golden Gate Theological Seminary in California, was vice president of the Institute for Community Change, a nonprofit organization that helps governments and nonprofit organizations with initiatives, when former Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond appointed him ferries director in 2008.

Just as will be the case with his successor, Moseley walked into a high pressure job. Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said, "You have thousands of citizens in the state dependent on the success of the ferry system."

Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor and a former U.S. Navy battleship captain with a huge interest in ferry issues, praised Moseley for how he moved the ferry system from an agency under the Washington Transportation Commission to being purely a branch within the state Transportation Department. That change occurred over the frequent objections of an entrenched system that served an often-irate ferry passenger community. "I give him high marks for connecting with the communities," Seaquist said.

Meanwhile, Moseley inherited a ferry system whose best revenue source — a motor vehicle excise tax — disappeared in 2000 under political pressure and voter approval of an Initiative to limit the tax. The ferry system still struggles with finding revenue sources, although the Legislature did pass bills earlier this month to provide some fee-related income to be used for future ferry construction.

Moseley constantly met with the public, legislators and ferry employees. "He has a really open style. He was really accessible to the public," Clibborn said. Rolfes noted that Moseley got the two Senate transportation committee co-chairpersons from non-ferry districts  — Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way — to become strong WSF supporters.

King and Eide were two of the leaders of the failed efforts to create a long-term funding package, which now seems unlikely to come about before 2015 at the earliest. Peterson said the national search will look for "a candidate to keep up the good work that David started."

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