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State ferry routes won’t be axed, according to two key lawmakers

By SCOTT PANITZ

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

The state Legislature will find the money needed to keep all state ferry routes open, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said last week.

Since early January, state officials have said that up to five ferry routes could be eliminated if no new revenue source for the ferry system is found. But Haugen, a veteran lawmaker representing a ferry-served district, said such a scenario won’t become reality any time soon.

“People get uptight because the governor and the Department of Transportation said if we don’t (find new revenue) then we’re going to cut all these ferry routes,” said Haugen. “We’re not going to cut all these ferry routes.”

Haugen and her counterpart in the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), say they are working on a revenue package that would keep all the ferries running at an acceptable capacity until a larger, more sustainable package can be instituted.

One revenue package that is not being counted on, however, is Gov. Chris Gregoire’s oil barrel fee, which she announced during her State of the State address in early January.

The governor proposed the $3.7 billion revenue package as a way to help solve the state’s massive projected transportation deficit, which includes a $1.3 billion shortfall for ferry operations over the next 10 years.

Clibborn said that while the bill — HB 2660 — was passed out of her committee, it did so in a watered down form and isn’t likely to advance.

“Relying on that doesn’t feel like the only thing that we should be doing,” she said. “When you look at the needs of the budget, ferries are a very small piece, but they are critical.”

Haugen agreed, indicating that the Senate considers its version of Gregoire’s oil barrel fee, SB 6455, to be a tax that would require a supermajority of 66 percent to pass. She denounced it as “dead.”

David Moseley, who heads the state ferry system, called the oil-barrel fee a “solution” to the ferry system’s financial woes in January. He now appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach to the new package.

“It’s obviously substantially less, and how much of that would be for the ferries division we may not know until the budget is finally dealt with,” he said.

Moseley said that the ferry system operating budget for the current biennium is around $475 million with $310 million of that covered through fare-collection and the rest covered by transfers from other transportation accounts.

The money available from those accounts is set to drop significantly with the impending expiration of the 2003 Nickel Funding package, combined with a high need for road maintenance.

The forms of the revenue packages differ, but they serve to accomplish the same thing: increasing certain licensing fees to raise money for state transportation accounts, including ferry operations and capital.

Clibborn’s version is bound up in just one bill, HB 2053, which was passed out of the House at the end of last year’s regular session but ran out of time in the Senate. It would contain about 14 different fees including drivers’ license fees, dealer fees and title registration fees.

Currently sitting in the House Rules Committee, that iteration of the bill would raise around $55 million this year for the state’s transportation accounts and more than twice that for the next two biennia. Clibborn said she plans to bolster that version of the bill and increase the amount of revenue it will provide with some additional fees.

Both lawmakers said that, unless they are amended substantially, the bills in the package should provide enough money to sustain ferry operations until the end of the next biennium in 2015. A second 144-car ferry, which would be partially bonded, according to Haugen, would also be in the works.

Building that second ferry within the next biennium, Clibborn said, would save the state millions of dollars since the infrastructure for the first one remains intact and can be recycled.

While Clibborn is optimistic, she is also realistic.

“In the end, we have to reconcile the two packages,” she said. “Say that, as they move along, somebody amends those bills, or somebody amends my bill, and something gets taken out because people don’t like it, then I will have less revenue. I can’t really say exactly where the revenue will be until we get all done with both bills in our place and her (Haugen’s) place and then we sit down.”

“We’re not closing any roads in this state,” said Haugen, who has represented Camano and Whidbey islands in the legislature since 1982. “If we’re going to close down a ferry route, we’re going to close down a state route somewhere on the mainland, because ... ferries are (part of our highway system).”

Clibborn said her proposal should hit the floor around Feb. 16, along with her House Transportation Budget.

 

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