No ferry cuts, but other issues lie ahead

Lawmakers have once again staved off cuts to ferry service, but fare increases and schedule changes may still be on the horizon for Vashon ferry riders, according to state officials.

Islanders can learn about and comment on a raft of ferry-related issues at a public meeting next Tuesday at McMurray Middle School. At the meeting, officials from Washington State Ferries will discuss fare increases proposed for this year and next, possible changes to the schedule at the north end and a package of bills currently before the state Legislature that could end the ferry system’s ongoing financial crisis.

“If we don’t get new revenue this biennium, there will be unavoidable service cuts,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien) in an interview.

Late last year, the cash-strapped ferry system, faced with shaving another $5 million from its budget, put forward a slate of cuts to eight ferry routes, including the north-end triangle route and the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route.

A later budget scenario released by the Legislature included only reductions on the south end — cutting both a mid-day trip and the last run of the evening. But ultimately legislators, as they have during the past several budget sessions, temporarily filled the ferries’ budget hole, moving funds from other parts of the transportation budget to continue current service levels for the next two years.

“There were not a lot of cuts proposed, but one of the cuts would have had a big impact on Vashon,” Fitzgibbon said. “I’m really glad that after a lot of work we were able to get those cuts restored.”

Kari Ulatoski, head of Vashon’s Ferry Community Partnership and a longtime ferry advocate, lobbied for ferry service in Olympia earlier this year with a small group of islanders. She was glad lawmakers found another fix, she said, but is tired of going through the same budget crisis year after year. The ferries have been in the red since the state Motor Vehicle Excise Tax expired in 2000.

“We have fought long and hard for it, but why should we have to go through this every year. … They cannot keep threatening cuts to service. Most of the ferry community legislators are saying enough is enough,” Ulatoski said.

Indeed, legislators have put forward a package of bills that is currently alive in the House and would end the financial crisis for the entire state transportation system. The group of bills, which as of Monday had passed out of the House Transportation Committee, would provide $9.6 billion for transportation needs — ferries, highways and bridges — over the next 12 years, mostly by increasing the gas tax.

Moseley said about $1 billion in new revenue would be dedicated to the ferry system, allowing it to build a badly needed new ferry, update ferry terminals and avoid future service cuts.

Moseley said it was his sixth legislative session since becoming the ferries director, and it was the first package he has seen that would set the ferries on a sustainable path for the next dozen years.

“There’s never been a package like this before,” he said.

Fitzgibbon said on Monday that the Legislature would likely go into a second special session this week and it was too soon to tell if the transportation package would pass, especially in the Republican-controlled Senate. On one hand, he said, those in Olympia were focused on finding an agreement on the state’s operating budget. On the other had, some senators and representatives were taking transportation funding more seriously , especially after the recent collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River.

“We don’t want to have it take something like that for us to move on it, but the fact that it did happen did raise the priority level of maintaining our transportation infrastructure for a lot of legislators,” he said. “I definitely think this is the most serous discussion of a revenue package we’ve had in a long time.”

While the transportation budget recently signed by Gov. Jay Inslee included funds to complete construction of a second 144-car ferry, the current transportation package would allow the state to build a third and final boat in the 144-car series and eventually retire boats that have been on the water past their usual lifetime. The first 144-car vessel in the class is currently being built and is expected to be operational next year.

“We’re aware of the need and really trying to make sure this gets taken care of this year,” Fitzgibbon said.

Vashon Islanders are increasingly familiar with the problems that can occur when aging boats are kept on the water. Recently the Klahowya, which was built in the 1950s and is one of the system’s oldest boats, has been causing frequent delays on the north-end route because it must sail at slower speeds due to mechanical issues and often can’t keep up with the demanding schedule.

“When one boat gets behind, that throws everybody else off,” Moseley said.

Moseley said that to fix the issue until new boats come into the  system, this month the state would take the Klahowya out of service for maintenance and improvements that officials hope will allow it to sail at greater speeds again. The Tilikum, which is the same age as the Klahowya but is in better condition, will sail on the route until later this summer when the Klahowya returns.

“We’re hopeful that when the Klahowya comes out of a maintenance period this summer, it will be able to meet the speeds,” Moseley said.

But even with boats sailing at full speeds, Moseley said, the north-end route often experiences delays simply because the route is complex and sailings are close together. The state is now considering altering the north-end schedule when a larger boat is added to the triangle route, possibly by the end of next summer.

Since the new ferry will carry more cars, Washington State Ferries is considering reducing the number of sailings on the triangle route while ultimately transporting the same number of cars throughout the day. Moseley didn’t give details on what a new schedule might look like or how many sailings would be cut, but said any changes would be several months down the road and there would be opportunity for public feedback. The agency, he said, has already presented the idea to some stakeholder groups.

“We’re looking at ways we can use the larger boat so we don’t reduce capacity but allow us to meet the schedule better,” he said.

Ulatoski, who is paying close attention to the situation, said she wasn’t yet sure what to make of the possible schedule change.

“If they can keep the same number of cars going across the water, then it’s a non-issue,” she said. “If they can’t and they load later, it’s a problem.”

Whatever the schedule at the north end, ferry riders may soon begin paying more per ride. The state, looking to generate $328 million in new revenue in the next two years, has proposed raising fares on all routes this October and again next May. In October, vehicle fares would increase by 3 percent and passenger fares by 2 percent. In May, vehicle fares would go up another 2.5 percent and passenger fares 2 percent again. The proposed fare hikes follow a 3-percent general fare increase implemented in May of 2012.

The fare proposal will be presented at next week's meeting, and the state will hold future meetings to gather public feedback on the proposed hikes, which will be voted on by the Washington State Transportation Commission this summer.

“They’re between a rock and a hard spot; they need this operating revenue,” Ulatoski said of the fare proposal, adding that she worried that the bigger hikes for vehicles would hit drivers harder than walk-ons.

“People have got to come to that meeting, and they’ve got to listen to these proposals,” she said.

Washington State Ferries will hold a community meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 18, at McMurray Middle School.

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