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Islanders urge state officials to maintain ferry service levels

Hundreds of Islanders showed up for a meeting on the ferry system
Hundreds of Islanders showed up for a meeting on the ferry system's future Wednesday night.
— image credit: Susan Riemer

Hundreds of Islanders made their way through torrential rains and strong winds Wednesday night to let state officials know they’re worried about potential cuts to Vashon’s ferry service.

More than 500 people crammed into McMurray Middle School’s multipurpose room — while 300 to 400 were turned away — in what state officials said was the largest public hearing they’ve seen since they began asking ferry-served communities what they think about Washington State Ferries’ draft long-range plan.

“We feel threatened,” Beth DeGroen, a real estate agent, told ferry officials. “And that is why there are so many people here tonight. The others are still on the ferries, waiting to get here.”

Melinda Sontgerath, the president of the Vashon Chamber of Commerce and owner of The Hardware Store Restaurant, said she’s already feeling the impact of high fares and a congested ferry system and that further reductions could hurt small Island businesses.

“We Islanders are courageous, we are brave, and we never give up. Please join us in solving this problem,” she told state ferry officials.

The hearing was one of 10 that David Moseley, who heads the ferry system, and other members of his staff are holding in ferry-served communities in an effort to put the final touches on a long-range plan they’ll present to the Legislature later this month. The planning effort was mandated by the Legislature to address the ferry system’s long-term funding crisis — a shortfall that could amount to $4 billion annually in operating and capital costs by 2030.

After months of research and several meetings seeking public input, the ferry system came up with a draft plan that posits two scenarios — what WSF planning director Ray Deardorf called “goal posts at both ends of the spectrum.”

Plan A maintains the status quo, building the system modestly, Deardorf told Islanders. "This comes at a price," he said, noting the shortfall would be around $3.5 billion. 
Plan B has the state taking responsibility for only core marine services, while locally funded entities — such as county ferry districts — would also supply services and "backfill" where the state was not providing services, he said. That plan would amount to a $1.4 billion deficit.

According to the draft report, Vashon would see a significant reduction in service were Plan B to go into effect: The so-called triangle run that serves Vashon, Southworth and Fauntleroy would go from three boats to two; and the 48-car Rhododendron would be permanently replaced by the 34-car Hiyu on the Tahlequah-Point Defiance run. (Gov. Christine Gregoire, in her proposed 2009-11 budget to the state Legislature, has also called for the Rhody's replacement by the Hiyu.)

Both plans assume a no-fee reservation system, enabling WSF to handle peak loads with the smallest possible terminals; improvements in transit connections; and pricing strategies that encourage walk-on traffic.

At Wednesday's meeting, 56 Islanders signed up to speak, many of whom took sharp aim at Plan B.

“When I heard you talking about Plan B, I thought you were having a psychotic episode,” Biffle French told Moseley and the other WSF officials.

John “Oz” Osborne was equally disdainful. Recalling a saying from his childhood in Indiana, he said, “This plan sucks canal water.”

"This is not a proposal," Jack Fisher, an Islander for 30 years, told WSF officials. "It is an abdication of responsibility to serve the citizens."

Others told WSF officials they could save the state millions of dollars in capital costs if they could convince the Legislature to end the "Washington-only" rule, mandating that new ferries built for the system be manufactured in the state.

Liz Otis, a retired Boeing executive, noted that President-elect Barack Obama is discussing a federal stimulus plan to help cash-strapped states. “We can't get federal dollars from the stimulus plan because we have a law that says we have to build boats in Washington,” she told Moseley.  

And Scott Harvey added that revoking the law wouldn't necessarily hurt Washington boat builders, who would still be free to bid on the work.

Others expressed concern over the proposed reservation program, a system would give those people who reserved a ferry for a certain sailing priority loading.

“People who work can't all go on the 10:10," DeGroen said. "I can see two to 4,000 people leaving the Island, so then we will begin to lose our Island businesses, our schools, we lose the whole Island. It's a bad idea.”

Others were concerned with how the reservation system could work: How could ferry workers, for instance, separate out the reserved cars from the non-reserved in a one-lane line like the one at Fauntleroy?

Vashon Fire and Rescue chief Hank Lipe impressed upon the visitors the need for timely and reliable ferry service for medical emergencies requiring treatment in Seattle, adding, “I hope that aid cars will not be required to make reservations.”

Moseley, reached the next day en route to Bremerton, where he was holding another public hearing, said he was impressed by the number of Islanders who turned out and the depth of their concerns.

"Obviously, there's a lot of anxiety and concern, particularly around Plan B," he said. "I thought the comments were by in large thoughtful and respectuful but clearly laid out the anxiety people feel."

Ferry officials said they'll incorporate the concerns they hear at the 10 public hearings they're holding around the region before submitting the final report to the state Legislature on Jan. 31; the Legislature will then decide the ferry system's direction.

Vashon ferry-service activists, meanwhile, say they'll continue to lobby for the best possible ferry service for the Island.

Joe Ulatoski, a member the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council's transportation committee, said the committee will ask the Community Council to send letters to the governor and the heads of both legislative chambers asking them not to cut service to Vashon.

Advocates in ferry-served communities throughout the region will also circulate a petition requesting adequate funding for ferries; they plan to deliver the petitions to the governor after a rally at the capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 17.

"The whole thing boils down to the actions that the governor and the Legislature take," Ulatoski said.

— This story was written by Eric Horsting and Leslie Brown. Susan Riemer also contributed to the report.

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