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Ferry advocates begin to find traction with state lawmakers
When Islanders rallied with government officials and residents of other waterfront communities in Olympia last Wednesday, they brought a unified message to state lawmakers: Washington State Ferries need help.
They presented lawmakers with a petition signed by more than 8,000 Washingtonians — most of them Islanders — imploring them to support funding for the financially ailing system.
And apparently, those in Olympia have taken note.
In the past week, the state Senate and House of Representatives discussed the state transportation budget now being drafted, taking the Feb. 18 ferry rally at the Capitol building into consideration, Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor) said on Monday.
Seaquist has been instrumental in rallying support for ferries regionwide and in drafting an alternative plan to the long-term proposals put forth by WSF, which were mandated by the Legislature last year to find a way to sustain the floundering system.
Also a member of the state’s ferry caucus, Seaquist said many state lawmakers seem to understand what more than 100 people hoped to convey at last week’s rally.
“This is a ferry system that is barely hanging on by its fingernails,” he said. “It’s got old, aging boats. We’ve got to make sure we modernize this system and upgrade the fleet.”
Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), chair of the House transportation committee, said she was struck by the passion of those who rallied on the steps of the state Capitol building last week.
She’s working with the other members of the so-called ferry caucus — those legislators who have ferries in their districts — to put forward a proposal for what they’d like included in the state budget.
Referring to the two proposals put forward by WSF to get the system back on solid financial footing, she said, “I am working to get what I consider not a Plan A or Plan B, but a plan that’s sustainable, that is funded, that doesn’t cut service ... That is my goal.”
Last week, those working on “Plan C,” the long-term ferry plan being drafted into a bill by legislators and constituents as an alternative to WSF’s two options, released their first written draft.
It, too, calls for a long-term funding solution for the state ferry system that many ferry-service advocates see as the underfunded and neglected arm of the state Department of Transportation.
It also directs the state to scrap its plan for Island Home ferries, 64-car vessels that cost far too much to build, according to the draft.
At $80 million, the boats cost “more than double an acceptable per-car slot cost,” Plan C states.
Instead, Plan C drafters think the ferry system should get the ball rolling on its larger — and more practical, they say — 144-car ferries.
Three should be built as soon as possible, which shouldn’t be difficult since the state already has a contract with a shipbuilder to make the boats, according to Plan C.
“In my view, we’re going to need more than a couple of those small 64-car boats,” Seaquist said. “We’re going to have to start building the 144 class so the south Sound ends up with the kind of service it needs. If we only build 64s, you guys on Vashon are not going to be served.”
Kari Ulatoski, chair of Vashon’s transportation committee, concurred.
While Plan C is still being crafted, the draft currently circulating gives ferry riders an idea of where the bill is headed, she said.
“We are looking to get boats built faster and hopefully cheaper, without jeopardizing safety,” she said.
Plan C is a grass-roots counterpoint to the ferry system’s official long-term plans, neither of which makes the grade, ferry-service advocates say.
Plan A, which contains
less drastic cuts than the skeletal operations future outlined in Plan B, still wouldn’t provide enough service system-wide, according to supporters of Plan C.
Washington State Ferries provides Puget Sound communities with “a vital network” of security, economic and culture links that “benefit the economic interests of the entire state,” the draft states.
Many in ferry-served communities feel that ferries should be funded better, given the fact that they’re the state’s marine highways, according to Plan C and many speakers — including legislators — at last Wednesday’s rally.
“Many of us are paying for other people’s schools, their kids, their opportunities,” Ulatoski said. “I’m not one to deny somebody else to get their education, so it would be nice if someone else wouldn’t deny me the chance to get to work and make a living.”