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Vashon could lose ferry routes under state's worst-case scenario

In what state officials are calling a dire situation, Vashon Island could see two of its three ferry routes eliminated if lawmakers fail to find a new source of funding for the cash-strapped ferry system.

Under a worst-case scenario laid out this month by state Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond, five ferry routes would be eliminated and two more would see service reductions if the state receives no new revenue for transportation. The Point Defiance-Tahlequah and Vashon-Southworth runs are at risk, as are the Southworth-Fauntleroy, Seattle-Bremerton, Port Townsend-Coupeville and Anacortes-Sidney routes.

David Moseley, the head of Washington State Ferries (WSF), said the cuts laid out by Hammond were examples and not a final decision. Routes with the most ridership as well as runs that provide Island access were spared.

“It illustrates the types of things that would occur if we do not have new revenue and if we’re not able to transfer funds from other accounts,” Moseley said. “It would require a radically different ferry system.”

Moseley said WSF has struggled financially since the loss of the motor vehicle excise tax 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 ferries afloat.

However, those accounts are also running dry, he said, and ferries, roads and bridges are all in trouble. The state estimates a $3 billion shortfall over the next decade to maintain highways and continue ferry service.

“This is what the governor means when she says there are no more Band-Aids in the box,” Moseley said.

Moseley believes a $3.7 billion transportation package recently proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire is a significant step toward saving the state’s ferries. The package, which includes new taxes and fee increases for the next 10 years, would allow the state to continue current ferry service levels.

It would not, however, provide funds to build new boats, something Moseley said will be crucial in the coming years.

State Sen. Sharon Nelson also believes the governor’s proposal is part of the answer. She said she and other members of the ferry caucus, a group of legislators representing ferry-dependent communities, are working to build a transportation package that could win legislative support as well as a proposal to fund vessel construction.

“We’ve got to continue to build new boats,” she said. “We’ve got an aging fleet.”

Nelson, who lives on Maury Island, said she knows more than anyone how devastating the loss of two ferry routes would be to Vashon. “It’s my job to make sure that possibility is as remote as possible,” she said.

Kari Ulatoski, a leader in the regionwide Ferry Community Partnership, said she hopes this is the year the state’s transportations woes are finally resolved.

An outspoken ferry advocate for several years, Ulatoski is again making plans to join others from the Puget Sound area in lobbying in Olympia for ferry service. But after five or six years of such work, she said, she’s becoming burned out and increasingly frustrated that few Islanders have joined her and Greg Beardsley, the head of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, in asking lawmakers to recognize the importance of sustained ferry service.

“Who’s going to prevent them from (cutting runs) if we don’t tell them how this is going to affect us?” Ulatoski asked.

She seemed baffled by the lack of support and said Islanders don’t seem to realize how serious the situation is.

“It just makes me sick to my stomach — I’m that worried,” she said.

And this week as south-end ferry riders boarded the Chetzemoka, the year-old ferry that took over the Point Defiance-Tahlequah run, many were unaware that the state has threatened to completely cut the route.

Ben Meeker, who commutes to Tacoma along with his wife each day, said the loss of the Tahlequah run would be a huge hardship for his family. Meeker teaches at Bellarmine Preparatory School, where his wife works in the kitchen and his daughter attends classes. He said commuting off the north end of Vashon to Tacoma simply wouldn’t be realistic.

“It would be absolutely horrible. It would seriously mean moving to Tacoma probably,” he said.

Meeker believes hundreds of Islanders would be in the same position, and if they felt their run were seriously at risk, they would take their complaints to Olympia.

“We’re a fairly organized bunch,” he said. “If it comes down to it, we’ll go kick and scream down there.”

 

The Ferry Advisory Committee and VMICC Transportation Committee will hold a meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Vashon Chamber of Commerce.

 

 

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