The recent incident of the King County Water Taxi hitting Seattle’s seawall provides an opportunity to reassess the county’s role in providing this service — an opportunity that the public never had. It’s rare that a property-tax increase does not go to the public for a vote. And even more unusual that it is enacted with such speed and lack of debate.
Some questions that need to be answered: Should the county operate a ferry district? And how much should county residents pay to subsidize the service? In 2010, the county will spend nearly $16 million operating the service. Is it efficient? And is it a core service of county government?
From the beginning, the King County Ferry District has been controversial. In November 2007, the County Council voted 8-1 to go into the ferry business. Keep in mind that the council voted to create the ferry district the day after voters defeated the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID). There was little discussion and lightning-quick action while the dust was still settling from the election results.
It seems obvious that the council did not believe a majority of voters in King County would approve a general property tax increase for the Water Taxi or the Vashon-to-downtown foot-ferry service and decided it would be better to avoid the public process a vote of the people would require.
The crisis moment happened because the state decided to get out of the foot-ferry business and focus solely on auto ferries. Auto ferries are treated as state highways and can be funded through the gas tax. Passenger ferries cannot. The 18th Amendment to the State's Constitution strikes again!
The same morning the council created the ferry district, it passed a property-tax increase to create a new flood-control district for levee improvements along the Green, Snoqualmie, and Cedar rivers, and it raised the sales tax one-tenth of a cent to fund the Mental Illness and Drug Dependency (MIDD) Action Plan. It was indeed a busy day of legislating, instead of the usually uneventful session following an election.
Again, none of these proposals was submitted to a public vote. At the time I wondered why all this activity was so hurried and happened with so little debate or transparency. In 2009, we would learn that two of these measures may have been connected by more than just the calendar.
Council member Kathy Lambert claimed during the 2009 election season that then-Council President Dow Constantine, who was running for King County Executive, had earlier threatened to withhold a vote on the flood district if he couldn’t get the votes for the ferry district. Lambert’s district would be heavily impacted if the flood district didn’t pass. Councilmember Julia Patterson also represents people in the Kent Valley who depend on those flood control levees.
Constantine, now the county executive, has always maintained that there was no linkage between the measures.
During his own campaign last year for King County Executive, Fred Jarrett issued a press release detailing his concerns about the creation of a county ferry district: "I began raising questions about the financial justification for the county foot ferry system last March 17th. In my July 9th budget paper, I called on the county council to put the ferry system on hold and instead focus on stabilizing the finances of the Metro bus system. On July 14th I called on the county to suspend the hiring process for the $135,000 ferry system manager. On July 20th I issued a statement pointing out the fiscal irrationality of funding a water taxi system while at the same time cutting Metro bus service."
Council member Julia Patterson was quoted by Seattle Times Reporter Keith Ervin as saying: "When I saw the handwriting was on the wall, the ferry district was going to move forward without my vote, I got in there and negotiated for two demonstration routes in my district. I got them, one in Des Moines and one in Renton," Patterson said.
"That ferry-district vote was the worst vote of my entire political career," Patterson said. "We were put into a situation to take that vote without adequate information about ridership and without adequate information about costs. ... It was not a good vote, and we need to fix it" by moving some ferry-tax authority to Metro bus service.
Some revenue was moved to cover increased Metro transit service as Patterson had pushed for. But now we’re again facing cuts to Metro service hours.
And as for the ferry demonstration routes she negotiated for Des Moines and Renton, she will likely be waiting a very long time because those funds were part of the Metro bus deal.
So, does it make sense to have a county-run ferry district? The plan was to re-establish the Mosquito Fleet and provide water transport not only on Puget Sound but across Lake Washington. There was a commitment at the time of the 2007 vote to have a run from Kirkland to Seattle by July 2009, followed by the South Sound routes that Patterson negotiated.
And like so many other services, it was necessitated by the state’s divestment in passenger ferry service. We are seeing a similar situation in education and public safety — the state divests, and gives local jurisdictions authority to raise local taxes. The Supplemental Schools Levy on the Seattle ballot right now is but one example.
It can’t be disputed that the ferry service is an amenity that has a constituency. The Vashon foot ferry is undoubtedly popular with residents of Vashon Island who work downtown. The West Seattle Water Taxi is popular too — particularly in the summer months. In fact, this will be the first year it will be expanded from a spring-to-fall service into the winter months — albeit with a reduced schedule. We’ll see what happens to ridership in the cold winter months as commuters in West Seattle have other choices.
It can also be much faster taking a bus downtown from West Seattle than taking the Water Taxi.
Because the political issue is settled — this service will be offered by the county — the real question should be twofold: Who can best provide the service, and what level of subsidy is fair? There is no reason why the county should have a ferry director and staff for only two boats. According to King County’s Ferry District budget, district management will cost $566,000 in 2010. Another line item, management/support, is another $1 million.
And the county is about to take another step to put us all on the hook for a permanent Ferry District, and ultimately another demand on a general fund in crisis. The county wants to build a maintenance barge and eventually own and maintain its own fleet of boats. And maintaining passenger vessels in salt water is not cheap. The maintenance barge alone will cost over $3 million — a barge that would not even be needed by most outside providers.
And while the barge will be paid for by a federal grant, maintenance and operations will not. It is a familiar story of building facilities that put pressure on operations funding. And remember, that the maintenance barge is being built to service two boats.
While taxpayers will contribute only $1.18 million in 2010, increases could be on the way if state and federal grants dry up. The district will get $3 million in federal grants and $1.7 million in state grants this year. Projected fares from riders will amount to $1 million.
So, how can the county proceed without putting more pressure on taxpayers and other parts of the pinched county budget?
The county should consider a competitive bidding process for the service. Even though Argosy is currently providing emergency service and has done it for a decade prior to the county’s involvement, there may be other providers that would be interested and competitive as well. The benefit of contracting with a private vessel operator is that the county would not have to operate and maintain boats and overhead, and liability would be dramatically reduced.
Not to mention the $3 million barge that wouldn’t even be needed.
Larger fleet size, staff backfill and surge options would create an economy of scale that is difficult for the county to match.
The new foot-ferry service between Kingston and Seattle uses another approach worth watching. The Port of Kingston operates the service and has a goal of breaking even by the end of 2011. Can we get that kind of a commitment from King County? A round-trip fare costs $15 compared to the Vashon/Seattle trip, which is $4.50 each way. If the Port of Kingston succeeds, maybe the county can adopt some of their strategies.
However, a recent Seattle Times story had a revealing quote regarding the Kingston Ferry:
“Sonny Woodward, a realtor with John L. Scott in Kingston, also was on board and he said he hopes the new ferry will push people to buy homes in Kingston. He said a waterfront house that might cost $1.2 million on Bainbridge Island could be purchased for about $850,000 in Kingston.”
While I believe in public subsidies for mass transit, it should be for the masses. But if the Port of Kingston can break even on the service, it will be worth the investment.
Still another strategy could be to work with Kitsap County and other areas that see the benefit of foot ferries and make King County the regional foot-ferry transit provider. This would justify investments and help Kitsap County accomplish it goal of waterborne transport. King County will be working with Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) to develop data on these ideas next spring.
There may be promise in some or all of these ideas, but the county should not commit taxpayers to one strategy or another without a full public discussion of the options and costs.
The public deserves a full accounting of the level of subsidy being provided by taxpayers for the service — this information would have been provided had there been a public vote. Because voter trust in government is in need of improvement and is essential, transparency is vital.
During the boom times these costs were not scrutinized by the public or the media. When sales tax, real estate excise taxes, and property values were growing exponentially, many new programs and projects were created at all levels of government. But now the time has come to refocus government on core responsibilities in order to prevent deep cuts to programs that are fundamental to our safety and economic well being.
The county is asking for a sales-tax increase to protect core public safety services from being cut. I am voting for the initiative because I care about public safety and see it as a core function of government.
Earlier this year, the Municipal League of King County created a committee to study the King County budget and structure. The county asked the Municipal League to recommend the sales-tax increase. The League voted no:
“We agree that times are tough for King County but we are not convinced that King County government has exhausted all other revenue-generating and expense-cutting options and we are extremely disappointed that voters are being asked to approve a sales tax to fund popular and essential public safety services. While this may be a politically expedient way to fill a funding gap, it is a poor way to govern. Essential services should be protected not exploited.”
The county needs to demonstrate it is ready to embrace change and get out of businesses that others can run more efficiently. And if county leaders must increase taxes and add services, the public needs to be informed and allowed the opportunity to provide consent.