Potential cuts to ferry service stir concern

Islanders are urging state lawmakers to avoid what they call significant cuts to ferry service proposed for the south end of Vashon.

The House transportation budget released earlier this month proposes cutting the last trip of the evening on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route as well as one mid-day run, extending the mid-day service gap on the route from two hours to three hours and saving the state an estimated $780,000 a year. The Senate plan retained current ferry service.

Vashon’s ferry advocates, however, say they worry the service reductions suggested by the House would make it tough for drivers to get on and off the south end during the day, prevent islanders from going to Tacoma in the evening and send more cars to the north-end ferry.

“The effect would not be catastrophic, but very noticeable and would really affect people who regularly travel to Tacoma,” said Todd Pearson, an islander paying close attention to the situation. “And to some degree, it could affect the triangle route. Any additional pressure is a bad thing.”

The House transportation plan also includes cuts to the Port Townsend-Coupeville and Clinton-Mukilteo routes for an estimated $2.2 million in total savings.

Pearson said he has written to lawmakers about the impact that cuts would have on Vashon, and some others he knows have done the same.

“They’re aware we have our pitchforks in hand, and the torches are burning,” he said.

The state ferry system has been in the red since the motor vehicle excise tax expired in 2000. Since then, the state has transferred about $30 million a year from other parts of the transportation budget to maintain service. 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.

Those who have watched lawmakers wrestle with the transportation budget the past several years note that current proposed cuts aren’t as sweeping as what’s been put forward in the past.

Last budget session, officials proposed completely eliminating five ferry routes, including the Point Defiance-Tahlequah and Southworth-Vashon runs. And last fall, Washington State Ferries, with a mandate to shave $5 million from its budget, put forward a plan that included cuts to Vashon’s south-end route as well as extended the period of reduced winter service on the north end.

“I have to say that they are less this time, … but for Vashon, this is about a serious of a cut that we can have,” said Greg Beardsley, chair of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee.

Beardsley recently spent time in Olympia  with a handful of other islanders, lobbying lawmakers to sustain ferry service and delegate funds to continue building new vessels. Both the House and Senate transportation budgets provide $107 million to complete two 144-car ferries currently under construction, but not to build additional badly needed boats.

“Seven vessels are over 45 years old, and not one of them is in good shape,” Beardsley said.

Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), who represents Vashon and has become known as a staunch ferry service advocate, says that like past years, he’s been hearing from many islanders about the House’s proposed cuts. He said he’s gotten emails from families concerned about traveling to sports games in Tacoma and islanders that own businesses there and need to travel back and forth during the day.

“It’s a good sign that there are not proposed cuts on the north end, but cuts on the south end would affect people on Vashon, too,” he said. “That still needs to be fixed.”

Fitzgibbon said there is still hope of passing a comprehensive transportation package this session, enacting new taxes to fund highway projects, maintain rural roads, avoid cuts to ferries and even build new boats. But at the least, he hoped the Legislature, as it has in past years, could move funds around to avoid the proposed cuts.

“This year cuts are small enough it may be possible for us to find the money. There are still some places we can look,” he said.

In a move that has garnered mixed reactions, the Senate transportation committee also included in its budget $250,000 to fund a study and plan to convert ferry fare collection to the state’s Good2Go electronic tolling system. Good2Go is currently used to collect tolls on the 520 Bridge and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Last winter, a private consulting group suggested the state could save money by using the same tolling system on ferries.

Beardsley said the idea itself wasn’t bad, but on Vashon it would likely mean allowing passengers and walk-ons to ride free while steeply increasing vehicle fares.

“It is a very real possibility,” he said.

Fitzgibbon said he thought such a radical change in the fare structure would be a hard sell.

“It’s something we need to give a little more scrutiny to,” he said.

As for the service cuts currently on the table, Fitzgibbon said concerned islanders should contact members of the House and Senate transportation committees with specific examples of how the reductions would affect their lives. Budget talks are scheduled to wrap up this month.

“When people can be specific about the hardships associated with service cuts, that’s helpful information for other legislators to have,” he said.

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