Ferry system to get fresh Band-Aids

Gov. Gregoire appears to have given up on the comprehensive reforms she demanded in January. San Juan Islands legislators are talking about the best session in a long time.

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Will lawmakers tackle Washington's real transportation problems?

Gov. Gregoire appears to have given up on the comprehensive reforms she demanded in January. San Juan Islands legislators are talking about the best session in a long time.

A set of legislative reforms designed to patch up Washington State Ferries' (WSF) perennial money problems is making its way through the legislature, but grander schemes to improve the system have gone nowhere, and ferry users can look forward to more uncertainty about service levels.

One bill, which passed the state Senate on Monday and received House Transportation Committee approval Thursday (April 14), would impose a 25-cent surcharge on each ferry fare and earmark the proceeds to an account that will help fund a new ferry comparable in capacity to current Super-class vessels such as the Elwha. The measure would also abolish the Marine Employment Commission, placing ferry labor questions within the Public Employees Retirement Commission's purview, to save administrative costs. The bill would also exempt the ferry system from paying sales tax on its fuel as of 2013.

The Senate also recently amended and passed a House-originated ferry bill, which now awaits reconciliation with the House version. This measure  reclassifies certain ferry employees as managers, establishes managerial performance standards, and gives management prerogatives aimed at streamlining labor practices. It also restricts the scope of collective bargaining to hours, wages, benefits, and certain lesser issues. The Senate removed House language drafted by Rep. Jeff Morris (D-Mount Vernon), whereby WSF's failure to meet certain performance standards would trigger a request for private bids on the provision of management services.

The House, meanwhile, is considering two additional measures of its own that could further bolster WSF's financial situation. Amid the swirl of bills, and with the April 24 adjournment deadline looming, numbers remain far from settled: The last word on fare increases, for example, is not in. Complicating any prognostications further is the partial overlap between the pending legislative measures and the provisions of administrative deals recently negotiated by the state for both management efficiencies and labor concessions.

Combining the effects of the Senate-passed bills and the negotiated management and labor reforms, it's possible to project savings or revenue enhancements totaling at least $45-50 million over the next biennium, or roughly $25 million in annual terms.

The various patches will help compensate for the $120 million annual loss of ferry revenue that the 2000 elimination of the motor vehicle excise tax has engendered over the past 10 years. During that time, a state subsidy — in fact a transfer of funds from other state accounts — has plugged the hole to the tune of $833 million, or $83 million annually, most of that money going to capital projects. Over the upcoming biennium, however, the legislature's pending budget proposals only promise to kick in about $40 million yearly, hence the need to grab money here and there to keep WSF running acceptably. The long-term shortfall in capital funding for new boats generates the most concern.

“We are one accident away from a cascading catastrophe for the whole ferry system,” Rep. Morris told Crosscut. “We've got to get new boats built.”

Marta Coursey, director of communications for the ferry system, declined to speculate on what operational scenarios might lie ahead for WSF. As a minimum, an across-the-board fare increase of 2.5 percent is certain later this year. A WSF plan advanced in November in response to the budgetary squeeze called for service cuts on all but two of its eight routes.

Comprehensive schemes for reforming the ferry system have been left waiting in the wings. A bill to replace the state Transportation Commission's ferry oversight duties by establishing a Washington State Ferries Commission, with a majority of its members drawn from local ferry advisory committees, appears moribund. Groans greeted Gov. Chris Gregoire's January proposal for a new regional taxing district to finance the ferry service, although the urgency she conveyed has animated the legislative discussion since then.

In sea-encircled San Juan County, Howie Rosenfeld, county council member and chair of the local ferry advisory committee, indicated frustration over the taxation issue. “People are afraid of going anywhere with a new tax, and so it's really hard to come up with new funding sources.”

He expressed support for one of the House funding bills, which would help finance a variety of state functions by raising licensing and vehicle-use fees that have not seen an increase in decades. That measure passed the House Transportation Committee on Thursday because of solid support from majority Democrats.

"You're going to put pain over here or put pain over there," he said. "There's going to be pain one way or the other."

"Our only reservation on the fare increases is the elasticity [of demand],” Rosenfeld added, speaking for the county council and the advisory committee. "We need to maintain ridership. As soon as the ridership starts to decrease, you go into a death spiral. You need to raise the fares more, and that causes more people to drop out." Service cuts, he said, would be "very bad. We're just barely getting enough service as it is to maintain the economic traffic."

In a recent commentary for the online San Juan Islander, Rep. Morris, Sen. Kevin Ranker, and Rep. Kristine Lytton, who collectively represent the San Juans, took an optimistic tone: “Because of our maritime unified front, this is shaping into one of the best legislative sessions for ferry service in some time. Operation efficiencies, performance measures with consequences for not meeting our goals, and new ferry construction funding have all moved forward. While the current level of service is not acceptable, we are getting near to stopping the decade long erosion of service.”           

Reacting to the legislature's unwillingness to craft a more comprehensive solution, Gregoire spokesman Scott Whiteaker said, “I think she [the governor] is still evaluating proposals in the House and the Senate. Depending on what the bills contain, she'll be determining whether that takes us a step forward.” He declined to speculate, however, on what criteria she would apply in signing or vetoing ferry legislation.

In rolling out her taxing-district proposal in January, the governor stated, “What I do not accept and cannot accept is we walk out of here with another Band-Aid.” At a signing ceremony last Wednesday, however, she conceded that the pending legislation is "just a Band-aid."

"We can bandaid our way through this biennium,” she continued, “but there's no more bandaiding after that.”

Time will tell.


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