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State ferries survive the budget ax once again

State lawmakers — urged by the governor, ferry officials and countless constituents to find a permanent source of funding for the financially ailing ferry system — have emerged from one of the most difficult sessions in state history without a plan to get the system back on its feet.

The Legislature, however, was able to avoid significant service cuts and fare increases that were on the table throughout much of the session.

Washington State Ferries director David Moseley, along with other ferry officials, will visit Vashon next week as part of a string of community meetings in the Puget Sound area to explain how the recently approved state transportation budget will affect the ferries, answer questions and receive feedback.

The $9 billion transportation budget, signed into law last Monday by Gov. Chris Gregoire,  provides slightly more for the ferries’ operating budget — $467.7 million for the 2011-2013 budget compared to $446.9 million in the 2009-2011 biennium — and included no cuts to service and limited fare increases. 

The capital budget, at $283.3 million, is slightly smaller; however, it includes $122.8 million set aside to fund a new 144-car ferry.

The budget originally proposed by lawmakers included $4 million in service cuts, including cuts to both the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route and the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle route, and fare increases of up to 10 percent were considered. The proposed cuts and fare increases were strongly opposed by Vashon ferry advocates, some of whom traveled to Olympia to lobby legislators for continued service levels. They were avoided largely because of concessions made by ferry workers in March.

“That was a huge struggle to get that to happen,” said Greg Beardsley, the head of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee. “They overcame a lot of obstacles that were presented to the Legislature.”

The budget also limits fare increases to 2.5 percent a year, but provides for a fuel surcharge to be implemented should fuel costs rise. 

A 25-cent ticket surcharge to help finance the new 144-car ferry didn’t make it into the budget but is still being considered by the Legislature in a controversial bill that would, among other things, also set performance standards for ferry management in areas such as on-time performance, safety and customer satisfaction. The bill passed the House on Sunday. The Legislature is holding a 30-day special session and is scheduled to adjourn today.

Beardsley said the bill may be of special interest on Vashon, where the triangle route often has difficulty sailing on time during peak commute hours. He worries that new policies may result in WSF reducing runs to avoid late sailings, something he said happened recently on the Edmonds-Kingston route.

“One size does not fit all,” he said. “The north-end triangle route is one of the most difficult in the system.”

Beardsley anticipates the topic will come up at next week’s meeting and said Islanders could have some influence on how WSF implements new standards.

“If we don’t say something, they’re going to institute whatever they want,” he said.

Gregoire, who pushed lawmakers to address the funding problem this session and in January put forward a controversial proposal to give counties some responsibility to fund their ferry service, recently announced the formation of a Transportation Advisory Group. The group, which will include legislators as well as business and community leaders, will develop a 10-year investment and funding strategy for the state’s transportation system and will be largely responsible for finding a source of long-term finding for the ferries.

Beardsley was cautiously optimistic about Gregoire’s plan.

“I think they’ve been studying it for 10 years already,” he said. “I hope they can resolve it sometime in the future.”

 

David Moseley, the head of Washington State Ferries, will visit Vashon for a public meeting from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 1, at McMurray Middle School.

 

 

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