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Vashon Islanders upset about possible ferry cuts

Islander Trent Sheppard addresses Washington State Ferries director David Moseley at a meeting at Vashon High School last week. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Islander Trent Sheppard addresses Washington State Ferries director David Moseley at a meeting at Vashon High School last week.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

The state ferry system is on an unsustainable path and is once again facing some painful cuts that will likely affect Vashon residents, the head of the system told a standing-room-only crowd on Vashon last week.

At a well-attended meeting on Vashon's ferry service, the director of Washington State Ferries (WSF) David Moseley painted a bleak picture of the financial state of the ferry system. And while he sympathized with Islanders who spoke of how possible reductions in Vashon's ferry service would affect the Island, he made no indication that he would be able to address their concerns.

Moseley told a crowd of about 200 at Vashon High School on Thursday evening that the proposed cuts in Vashon's service are part of across-the-board reductions that WSF is required to make.

“The ferry system has been in difficult financial times for quite a while. … It costs more to provide current services than we receive in dedicated funds,” he said.

Faced with a $17 million funding gap, the ferry system developed a plan for the state's Office of Financial Management that included $3 million in cuts to administrative support and $14 million in ervice reductions.

“The only way to make that level of reduction is to reduce service,” Moseley said.

Vashon's share of the cuts includes reduced hours 14 weeks a year and reduced car capacity on the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle route and the elimination of two roundtrips from the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route. Under the plan, the 124-car Issaquah that currently serves the triangle route would be replaced with the 87-car Evergreen State, the second-oldest ferry in the fleet.

The only routes that wouldn't see reduced service under WSF's proposal are the Kingston-Edmonds and Bainbridge routes, routes that Moseley said pay for themselves with the amount in fares they garner.

“To reduce those routes would cost us money rather than save us money,” he said.

The explanation wasn't sufficient for most at the meeting, though.

Kari Ulatoksi, chair of Vashon's transportation committee, said that the triangle route will never cover its cost in fares and that cuts shouldn't be based on fare recovery, since Vashon residents are completely dependent on ferries.

“I don't think that's a fair analysis,” she said. “We're an Island, and we don't have a choice.”

Around a dozen other Islanders also addressed Moseley, speaking of concerns that service reductions would hurt commuter wait times, delivery of goods and services, property values and tourism to the Island.

Newly elected community council board member Jake Jacobovitch stood up and said he believes it is the state's responsibility to maintain Vashon's ferry service, regardless of the cost. He recently submitted a public disclosure request for all documentation related to WSF's proposed cuts.

“There are different priorities here, David. It's not just dollars and cents,” Jacobovitch said to applause and cheers.

Vashon High School principal Susan Hanson expressed concern that the cuts would impact students and teachers who commute to the Island, as well as make it more difficult to transport students on the many athletic and academic trips that occur each month.

“If we don't have reliable ferry service with with the capacity to serve us, we cheat our children,” she said.

Hank Lipe, chief of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, spoke to the growing need to transport critical patients off the Island via ferry. In 2005, he said, the fire department transported 271 patients. This year, they expect to reach 400.

Lipe said he worries about what a slower boat and fewer sailings could mean for the department's life-saving services and even offered to testify to the Legislature about his concerns.

“I'm getting kind of nervous. … We've got to understand the margin of safety here,” he said.

A few speakers expressed shock that the proposal included doing away with the the last sailing from Point Defiance at 10:30 p.m. One young man said he has a class in Olympia that ends at 9 p.m. If proposed cuts go through, he couldn't make the 9:30 p.m. sailing.

“That would make my education almost impossible,” he said. “This is a difficult decision, but you're impacting people's lives.”

Moseley assured those at the meeting that WSF officials are aware of how the proposed cuts may affect Vashon but emphasized that the money required to maintain current service levels simply doesn't exist.

Several Islanders questioned why WSF couldn't find other ways to cut costs and posed a myriad of solutions, from obvious ideas such as reducing employee benefits to more creative suggestions like charging by vehicle length.

Moseley was quick with an answer for most inquiries and assured the audience that WSF has examined the cuts from every possible angle.

“We've looked at it a million ways from Sunday,” he told one woman.

The proposed reductions are not a done deal, though, Moseley said. They must still be approved by the Office of Financial Management, the governor and Legislature.

After the meeting, he said WSF could be required to pose different options for cutting its budget.

“We won't know how all this pays out until after session. … This is the very beginning of the process,” he said.

Toward the end of the meeting Moseley told the audience that months ago he had hoped he would be able to come to Vashon and present Islanders a comprehensive transportation package that would make the ferry system more sustainable instead of bearing news of possible cuts.

“Unless we address the fundamental problem in the system we'll be here year after year. … We've got to directly confront this issue. We can't keep kicking the ball down the road,” Moseley said.

One man in the audience chimed in, “We're the ball.”

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