Governor’s budget calls for Hiyu to permanently replace Rhododendron

The 34-car Hiyu would permanently replace the 48-car Rhododendron on the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route under Gov. Christine Gregoire’s proposed $33.5 billion budget, which she released last week.

Facing a staggering deficit, the governor proposed $3.5 billion in cuts — from dramatic reductions in higher education funding to huge slashes in social service programs. Should the Legislature approve her budget, one victim in the two-year spending plan would be the “Rhody,” built in 1947 and now one of the oldest ferries in the state’s fleet.

“The governor had the responsibility of providing a balanced two-year budget. ... It was strickly a financial decision,” said David Moseley, who heads the ferry division for the state Department of Transportation.

The decision, however, angers the Island’s spirited group of ferry-service activists, several of whom say Vashon’s ferry routes have already taken a disproportionate share of financial hits over the years.

“I’m rather unhappy about it, to put it mildly,” said Alan Mendel, who heads the Island’s ferry advisory committee.

Vickie Mercer, another ferry-service activist on the Island, put it more bluntly.

“I’m shocked. I’m amazed a decision like that could take place with zero, absolutely zero, discussion,” she said. “Why is Vashon being targeted when we’ve already taken so many service cuts?”

The use of the smaller Hiyu — which now acts as a back-up boat on a few runs — would save the state $1.3 million in fuel and labor costs during the biennium, according to the governor’s budget. The only other ferry-related cut in the budget is the cancellation of the Anacortes to Sidney, B.C., route — a move budget-writers say could save the state $9.2 million.

Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), however, said she questions that level of savings from using the Hiyu instead of the Rhody and plans to look into the situation to determine if the reduction in service really makes sense.

She also said she’s concerned about the impact the change will have on Islanders who commute off of the south end of the Island.

“Every time we put the Hiyu on that run, we end up with a two-hour backup,” she said. “It will hurt.”

The governor’s budget plan came the same week that Washington State Ferries released a draft of its much-anticipated plan to address the ferry system’s long-term financial future. The state system has struggled mightily in the last decade or so, ever since voters approved an initiative that slashed the state’s car tab tax, a portion of which funded ferry service.

The draft long-range plan calls for a “free, well-designed reservation system” — a move that ferry officials believe would relieve pressure to build larger car-holding areas at terminals. It also calls for improvement in connections between ferries and buses as well as a couple of changes in the pricing structure: Passenger fares, for instance, would increase at half the rate of vehicle fares; and a fuel surcharge mechanism would be put in place that would automatically raise fares when fuel prices spike.

The plan also puts forward two scenarios — Plan A and B — that would approach daily operations differently. Under one, there would be “marginal capacity increases” on several runs, including Vashon. Under the other, the Southworth-Vashon-Fauntleroy run would be reduced from three ferries to two; and the Hiyu would become the permanent boat for the Tahlequah run.

The plan, developed at the request of lawmakers, will be handed over to the Legislature, where lawmakers are expected to discuss it and put some version of it into a bill, Moseley said.

“We anticipate there will be a healthy and spirited discussion about those two visions,” he said. “We’ve tried to tee that up by presenting both of the plans.”

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