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Fate of ferries again uncertain as session begins

As the state legislature convenes this month, lawmakers say they hope to again bail out the ferry system and avoid millions of dollars in service cuts, but it may not be the year they find a permanent solution to the state’s growing transportation deficit.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien) said he thought the legislature would be able to move money in the state’s shrinking transportation budget to avoid $5 million in service cuts proposed last month — including ones that would affect Vashon’s routes. And while many, including lawmakers, are calling for a transportation package that would generate sustainable funding for ferries, highways and bridges, Fitzgibbon said the focus of the legislature this session would likely be funding for education.

The Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision a year ago, which ruled that the state is not meeting its obligation to fully fund education, has put pressure on lawmakers to work toward higher funding of schools ahead of its court-ordered 2018 deadline.

“Transportation is definitely high on the list, but most legislators feel the education needs are really urgent. They will probably receive the most attention this year,” said Fitzgibbon, who serves on the transportation committee.

In December, Gov. Chris Gregoire put forward a 2013-2015 budget that included $5 million in cuts to ferry service. Washington State Ferries, with a mandate to shave its budget, proposed a raft of cuts on eight ferry routes similar to what the agency put forward a year ago.

Under the budget scenario, the north-end triangle route would see its reduced-service winter schedule extended from 12 to 20 weeks. The route would also go to a two-boat schedule on weekends year-round.

On the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route, the ferries division has proposed the elimination of one mid-day trip as well as the last run of the night, a service extension that was provided in fall 2009.

The ferry system has been in the red since the motor vehicle excise tax ended in 2000. Since then, the state has transferred about $30 million a year from other parts of the state’s transportation budget to keep the ferry system afloat. However, those accounts are running dry, officials say, and the state estimates a $3 billion shortfall over the next decade to maintain highways and continue ferry service.

Ferry service advocates are frustrated by the lack of a permanent solution. The situation seems even more uncertain with a new administration — headed by Gov. Jay Inslee — in place.

“They have not addressed the pressing need for a large sum of money,” said Greg Beardsley, chair of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee. “They’re going to have to do something. They can’t kick the can much further.”

Beardsley, along with a small group of islanders concerned about the situation, is gearing up for what has become an annual ritual of lobbying lawmakers in Olympia to fund ferries.

“I hate that we are at it again for the same thing year after year,” he said.

Beardsley said he and other ferry advocates on Vashon will again ask lawmakers to put a transportation package on the ballot. But their top priority, as in past years, is to avoid the service cuts they say would not only mean longer lines at the docks but may also hurt local businesses and discourage families from moving to the island.

“The primary thing is no service cuts, which have been proposed again,” Beardsley said. “We keep trying to get that message across to everybody.”

He said they also hope the legislature will find funds to continue replacing the system’s aging boats. The state is currently building two new 144-car vessels, but has yet to secure funds for the third and fourth vessels it has under contract.

Beardsley said that funding new boats is especially important in light of the service disruptions caused this winter on several routes when multiple ferries experienced mechanical problems at the same time.

If new boats aren’t funded, “It will certainly mean that several ferries will exceed 60 years of age before they can retire them,” Beardsley added.

While a few on Vashon have been dedicated to advocating for the island’s ferry service — including Beardsley and Kari Ulatoski, head of Vashon’s Ferry Community Partnership — the group has historically struggled to recruit helpers. At a Ferry Advisory Committee meeting last week to kick of the lobbying season, fewer than 10 people showed, including just one island business owner.

Beardsley said he suspects that since the past several years have brought threats of cuts that never came to fruition, Vashon residents aren’t too nervous about losing ferry service and don’t feel the need to take action. In past years, ferry advocates’ efforts have included handing out fliers to ferry riders and gathering islanders’ signatures for a petition to the state.

“I would say that, at least in part, our success of the past several years has led to sort of an indifferent attitude, thinking nothing will go wrong,” he said.

And while he’s optimistic ferry service will again be maintained, Beardsley said, the situation around ferry funding and aging boats will only worsen until lawmakers take action.

“If what happened in December happened for six months, where people were struggling to get on and off the island, there might be a whole lot more interest,” he said.

Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) said that as a Vashon resident she knows full well the situation the ferries are in and the need for new vessels. But if the state puts one revenue package on the ballot this fall, it will likely have to be one for education, she said, with perhaps a smaller one for transportation.

“From a ferry community perspective, I would really like to see (a transportation package), but the other issue at hand is funding of K-12 and higher ed in my opinion,” she said.

Fitzgibbon said that the transportation committee was already discussing what a transportation package, either this year or in the future, might look like. So far, he said, most proposals included an increase in the gas tax.

Another more controversial proposal is to bring back the motor vehicle excise tax, and a proposal by Gregoire to tax drivers on their milage rather than fuel is still under consideration. However, such a tax would likely be complicated to implement, Fitzgibbon said.

“It’s one of the ideas that we’re considering a little further down the line as a way to supplement the gas tax,” he said.

Fitzgibbon said he was hopeful the state would put something viable on the ballot by next year.

“The service cuts proposed this year are pretty small compared to the ones we’d be looking at in future  years,” he said.

 

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