Ferry 'reform' passes in Olympia, staving off big cuts (for now)

Gov. Gregoire's sweeping reform proposal never went anywhere, but it did spur other bills. Efforts to fund the flagging system ran afoul of Republican opposition. A long-term solution proved impossible.

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Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka.

Gov. Gregoire's sweeping reform proposal never went anywhere, but it did spur other bills. Efforts to fund the flagging system ran afoul of Republican opposition. A long-term solution proved impossible.

In the wake of the legislature's enactment of a ferry-reform bill last week, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) thinks that ferry users “aren't going to see the cuts they thought they were going to see,” but the beleaguered ferry system’s problems have hardly been resolved.

“They're going to see some accountability,” said the senator, who chairs her chamber's transportation committee. Under the status quo, she added, “ferry riders complain and they always get ‘I'm not responsible.’ The accountability is going to be huge.”

The reforms were bundled in Senate Bill 7542, introduced by Sens. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island) and Paull Shin (D-Edmonds) in addition to Haugen. The measure was the only ferry bill of the session to reach the legislative finish line. If signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, it will place a 25-cent surcharge on every ferry ticket, to help fund a new 144-car ferry for the Washington State Ferries (WSF) fleet.

The bill also will exempt WSF and the state's four county ferry districts from paying sales tax on fuel purchases; subsume the Marine Employees Commission (MEC) within the state's Public Employment Relations Committee; and dissolve the commission altogether by 2013. The legislation sets performance standards and allows for privatization of management functions should those standards not be met. It also redesignates captains as managers, giving them “the control they need to be responsible for their vessels,” in Haugen's words.

Gregoire has until June 14 to sign or veto the bill, or subject it to a line-item veto. Spokeswoman Karina Shagren said Tuesday (May 31) that Gregoire was reviewing the legislation, which hit her desk with a pile of other last-minute enactments.

At least three other bills concerning ferries died during the session. They included a funding bill, passed in the House over unanimous Republican opposition, that would have raised fees for license plates, among other car-related services, to generate money for the ferries, transit, and other state functions. In the Senate, Republican opposition doomed the measure, which Haugen had pleaded for as a means of tiding transportation services over until 2012, when voters may be considering a ballot measure on new transportation taxes that would provide a longer-term funding solution.

“I had the votes,” Haugen said, referring to the funding measure, “but by the time I got everybody there to vote on it, the Republicans had changed their minds. Very discouraging.”

Regarding the tension that the reform bill set up between the Senate bill's Democratic backers and unions — traditional allies — Haugen said “it was extraordinarily difficult to get anything done,” and pointed to the dissolution of the MEC as a prime target of opponents.

“A majority of the ferry folks are good, hard-working people. There are always a few who aren't. The working people should feel positive, because we didn't make the cuts that were originally foreseen.”

The Legislature dove into the ferry issues in the wake of the governor's January announcement of a plan that would have established a new ferry taxing district in the nine counties dependent on the WSF system. Encountering a storm of protest, the proposal never made it to the legislature, but did spur discussion of the financially challenged system's future.

The reform legislation is expected to generate at least $8 million annually in direct cost savings or new revenue. Recently negotiated labor deals will save an expected $10 million a year, meaning a total savings approaching $20 million — far less than the budgetary gap that the ferries have wrestled with since the 2000 abolition of the motor-vehicle excise tax.

Asked to comment on the legislation's dollars-and-cents outcome, Haugen hastened to note that up-and-down fuel costs remain the perennial wild card, and have in recent years been “draining the system.” She added that the recently completed state budget does include money for researching the use of liquid natural gas to fuel the ferries. “That could mean some real savings. We don't have any real scientific results, but it's looking positive.”

With the House funding bill and the Gregoire plan both on the rubbish heap, the question of reliable long-term financing persists. The proposal for a ballot measure, by which a simple majority of voters could enact new transportation taxes that would otherwise require a two-thirds majority in the legislature, will have to be finalized in the 2012 legislative session. Haugen and House Transportation Committee chair Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) are pushing the proposal.

Washington's U.S. senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with fellow Democrat Rep. Rick Larsen and both of Alaska's senators, have meanwhile reintroduced federal legislation that would provide WSF with at least $46 million in funds annually through 2018. The bill, the U.S. Ferry Systems Investment Act, was introduced but not passed in 2009. It would get around the federal Marine Highways Act, which WSF cannot use because of state policy mandating that WSF ferries be built in Washington state. The fiscal situation in the other Washington, however, would seem to jeopardize the bill's prospects.

In an email statement, Larsen declined to speculate on the measure's chances but stressed that he would “continue working with my colleagues from other ferry districts around the country to include our priorities in the next surface transportation authorization bill,” referring to the pending renewal of another measure, the multi-year Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act.

Howie Rosenthal, who chairs the San Juan Islands Ferry Advisory Committee and sits on the San Juan County Council, expressed disappointment in the last-minute collapse of the state-fee funding measure. “I don't know why they couldn't come up with anything," he said. "A lot of those fees haven't been raised in 25 or 30 years.”

Still, he continued, “at least we came through with no service cuts. And we are going to get another superferry. That's great. My major concern is the next biennium. They've kicked the can down the road for not only ferries, but all state transportation — projects are not properly funded. Something has to be done. There has to be some new revenue source. Obviously in this political climate they didn't want to go there.”

As for the possible 2012 ballot question, he said that voter approval “is going to be difficult" but that "there are other possibilities — raising fees, restoring the motor-vehicle excise tax. They need to get away from the gas tax.”

Gas-tax revenues have helped prop up WSF since the loss of motor-vehicle excise tax revenue, but those are diminishing as people drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, or switch over to electric or hybrid cars. 

For those seeking a well-capitalized ferry system with the resources to fund everyone's wish list, the message from Olympia thus continues to be unwelcome: There are no easy answers.


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