Over the weekend, The Seattle Times published a good overview of what ails our ferry system. Tim Eyman, by cutting the motor-vehicle tax, launched the first torpedo. Out of money, the ferry captains deferred maintenance and jacked up fares, sending usage downward.
The message seems to be: retrenchment. Maybe the opposite course makes more sense?
Instead of thinking of Puget Sound ferries as a plain-vanilla extension of our highways, what if we thought of them as a powerful draw for tourism, an amenity for the locals, and a great place to hold meetings and parties? Not floating busses but tiny cruise ships? In turn, this way of thinking about the boats might steer us to a new source of funding: visitor taxes.
The boats and terminals are drab and utilitarian, even if the views and the bracing marine air are splendid. In fact, we have the finest and biggest ferry system in the country (excepting Alaska, a special case). Probably many of us have had the experience of riding on ferries in European countries, particularly Scandinavia, where the food is delicious, there's a nice bar or two, some street musicians are playing, and you can book some better seats, as on a train. It can't be that hard to add such features here, and the new revenues would probably cover the costs.
And what about some private meeting rooms? These could be reserved for private parties or for business meetings and retreats that might last a round trip or two, or be developed shoreside at the terminals.
The most intriguing aspect of this long-proposed approach is that the ferry system could establish a legitimate funding claim on visitor taxes all up and down the Sound. These taxes on hotel rooms, rental cars, restaurant meals and the like are normally directed to sports stadiums and convention centers, most of which are already built. As the taxes are paid off for stadiums, they are being coveted by Husky Stadium, Seattle Center, cleanup of Puget Sound, low income housing, and arts groups. Shouldn't the ferry system and all those ferry riders be putting its nose into this trough?