Keeping King County's tiny Navy afloat

Is seemed like a good idea back when there was money sloshing around, but now the county's promises for foot ferries are proving hard to honor.
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A passenger ferry (King County)

Is seemed like a good idea back when there was money sloshing around, but now the county's promises for foot ferries are proving hard to honor.

It's anticlimactic, but it's official: King County starts operating the Vashon Island-to-downtown- Seattle foot ferry today (Sept. 28). As a Vashon resident, I take some interest in these seemingly purely bureaucratic matters. But since the whole issue has gotten into the King County Executive's race, lots more folks are paying attention as well.

King County has paid the state to operate the Vashon foot ferry since last year. Next year, the county will start operating the West Seattle water taxi service that it has contracted out to Argosy Cruises since 1997. The West Seattle service is currently seasonal, and this year it will only run into October. In 2010, it will run year-round. The Vashon service has been re-branded as part of the King County Water Taxi.

King County started wading into these unfamiliar transportation waters two years ago. The year before, 2006, the Washington legislature passed a law that enabled counties to create ferry districts. Ferry funding had depended heavily on the car tab fees that were slashed after voters passed Initiative 695 in 2001. The state supreme court ruled the initiative unconstitutional, but the legislature quickly enacted the law that voters had tried to pass. Without a share of the car-tab fees, the state's ferry system, including the expensive passenger-only boats, had no dedicated source of funding. The state subsequently dropped passenger-only service to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton.

The legislature decided to fund the Vashon passenger ferry to 2008, after which the service would keep going only if a county ferry district took it over: If King County wanted a passenger-only boat to Vashon, King County could damn well pay for it. The legislation allowed the county to raise a whopping 75 cents per thousand from all property owners in the new special taxing district.

In April 2007, the King County Council voted to create a countywide ferry district. Seven months later, sitting as the ferry district board of directors, the council voted to impose a property tax of 5.5 cents per $1000 for a ten-year program that would involve taking over the Vashon and West Seattle runs and developing at least five experimental routes on Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

During the recent primary campaign for King County Executive, County Council members Kathy Lambert and Larry Phillips — who was a primary candidate — complained that in 2007, Council chair Dow Constantine — who was, of course, a more successful primary candidate — had made it clear that if they didn't vote money for a King County ferry district to benefit Constantine's constituents on Vashon Island and West Seattle, he wouldn't vote money — 10 cents per thousand — for a flood control district to benefit other people's constituents in the flood plains. Constantine said he had never done any such thing. Two other council members claimed he had. Both measures passed by overwhelming 8-1 votes, so Constantine's approval was hardly critical. And anyway, who cares? Trading votes is hardly a novel or reprehensible tactic.

There is, of course, a perfect symmetry in the two measures, which seemed well understood at the time. Both require people who live in some parts of the county to pay substantial taxes to solve problems unique to those who live elsewhere. No one told all those Vashon residents to go live on an island. But then, no one told all those Kent and Auburn residents to go build in a flood plain. Everyone in the county is taxed to support something that only a specific fragment of the population needs. Is this a new concept? 'ꀜDid you ever look at how the Constitution was created?'ꀝ asks the ferry district's executive director, Kjris Lund (who also directs the flood control district). 'ꀜPeople like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were always trading votes."

When the County takes over the Vashon run, a leased catamaran, the Melissa Ann, which formerly carried passengers in Hawaii, will replace the current sub-Spartan single-hulled Vashon passenger boat, which formerly carried oil-rig workers in the Gulf of Mexico. The Melissa Ann promises more stability, higher speed, and better fuel economy, as well as a less unpleasant ambience. The ferry district plans to lease another boat, which may or may not turn out to be a catamaran, for the West Seattle run. The county solicited proposals for both runs, and it is now deciding what kind of boat it wants for West Seattle. Paulette Norman, acting director of the county's marine division, explains that because the two routes are so different, the same kind of boat may not be appropriate for both.

The original grand scheme called for the county to eventually own a fleet of nine interchangeable 149-passenger catamarans. (The capacity wasn't picked arbitrarily: Bump it up one passenger, and the Coast Guard requires an extra crew member. The Melissa Ann is either 149-passenger or 150. Who knows? Lund says both figures have been used; you'd have to ask the Coast Guard.) That big fleet won't happen any time soon. And even if the county eventually owns nine boats, the interchangeable fleet probably won't happen at all. Lund explains that people have started re-thinking the original scheme, in part because on Lake Washington, which is 'ꀜkind of like a bathtub,'ꀝ one might want vessels that leave smaller wakes.

The county still expects to own at least a three-boat fleet, and it plans to have its own boats built and running in 2012. If all goes according to plan, the leases for the Vashon and West Seattle boats will expire at the end of 2011. The current capital budget includes a boat for Vashon, a boat for West Seattle, and a spare. The federal government has so far provided $3.1 million in grants for the vessels, and $2 million specifically to develop a cutting-edge hybrid vessel, which Norman says would probably be used on the shorter West Seattle route.

The county is hiring captains and crew to operate the Melissa Ann. It is also hiring someone who knows how to fix her. For major repairs, it will contract with local shipyards. It will contract with Washington State Ferries for access to state docks.

The new boat will carry 100 fewer passengers than the old, but the county will increase Vashon service from two peak-hour runs in each direction to three. It will also raise fares, albeit not much. A round trip will cost $9.

The ambitious — some would say quixotic — plan for a new mosquito fleet with those five new runs still exists on paper, but in the real world, it has been put on indefinite hold. 'ꀜIt's definitely . . 'suspended','ꀝ Lund says. Is this the end of the line? Maybe not. That may depend on what the region does about the 520 bridge. Ferry service on the lake 'ꀜmay be an idea whose idea comes again when that bridge is out of commission,'ꀝ Lund says.

This year's legislature reduced the amount of countywide property tax the ferry district can collect from the ridiculously high 75 cents per thousand to a more-than-adequate 7.5. Ferry district backers would have preferred to raise money through a $20 fee on automobile license tabs, Dow Constantine's chief of staff, Chris Arkills, says. That funding mechanism was in the bill that both houses passed, but the governor vetoed it. Even jacking the property tax is less controversial — in other words, less likely to inspire an initiative campaign — than raising the license tab fee.

The ferry district will, of course, need a revenue stream apart from fares. Before the county leased her, the Melissa Ann was one of three catamarans providing public transportation on Oahu. When the Oahu service shut down this summer, MSNBC reported that it had 'ꀜproved too expensive for the City Council. One study calculated the round-trip fare would have had to top $120 for the service to make money.'ꀝ It's hard to tell what the breakeven point would be for the Vashon passenger run, but it would be many times that $9 round-trip fare.

As Lund points out, there are so many costs that can be included or excluded, so many apples and oranges to be compared, it's hard to get a single accurate number. The 10-year net cost of the whole grand scheme, including the experimental runs, was projected at $226 million. When the county embarked on the project, Arkills argued that if you compared it to the cost of building a mile of freeway lane'ꀓor light rail'ꀓit looked pretty good. It would buy about five lane-miles of road or a single mile of light rail. For what it's worth, Metro Transit says it pays about 20 percent of its operating costs with fares, about two-thirds with sales tax. Those numbers are based on total fares and costs; for a rural route, the percentage paid by fares would be much lower. Making money is not, of course, the goal of public transportation.

So far, the revenue stream has been more than enough. The ferry district has been socking money away, building up some $25 million in cash reserves. In the current financial environment, that won't last. The county won't cut off that flow of dollars, but most of the money will be diverted away from ferries. Acting County Executive Kurt Triplett and council members agree that every county homeowner will keep paying that 5.5 cents per thousand. But the ferry district will collect only a penny. Using authority granted by this year's legislature, the county will create a new tax that funnels the rest of the money to its hard-pressed bus system.

None of this will be official until the council adopts a budget for next year. In the meantime, council members can wrestle with Triplett's proposal to draw down the ferry district's cash reserves. (An earlier suggestion to let the flood control district borrow from those reserves has been abandoned.) That would leave the ferries short of cash by 2014.

But hey, that's still five years off. For now, bon voyage.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.