State lawmakers call for new ferries

Ferry riders disembark the Rhododendron on Monday as Gary Sipple, a member of Vashon’s transportation committee, stands nearby. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Ferry riders disembark the Rhododendron on Monday as Gary Sipple, a member of Vashon’s transportation committee, stands nearby.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

If budget writers in Olympia have their way, Islanders will soon bid adieu to the Rhododendron — the oldest boat in the state ferry system’s fleet and the stalwart of the Tahlequah run for the past several decades.

But rather than be saddled with the smaller 34-car Hiyu, as Gov. Christine Gregoire had recommended in her budget proposal, south-end users will instead get a new 64-car boat to ferry them to Point Defiance as early as 2011, officials say.

That’s one of the highlights in both the Senate and the House versions of the state’s $4 billion transportation budget now pending before the two legislative chambers — a closely watched bill in ferry-served communities, as the budget will dictate the fate of the state ferry system for years to come.

What’s more, neither bill proposes reducing the north-end triangle route to two boats — as one of the more onerous proposals floated early on in the process had suggested. And fares, which have escalated rapidly over the last several years, would go up a more modest 2.5 percent — or the rate of inflation — over the next few years.

As a result, Islanders active in ferry issues, some of whom have played a pivotal role in a broad-based, grassroots lobbying campaign on behalf of ferry-served communities, are now breathing a sigh of relief.

“It was our 8,000 signed petitions and our rally down there (in Olympia) that are directly related to what success we’ve had so far,” said Gary Sipple, a member of the Island’s transportation committee.

“We’ve made huge progress,” said Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island).

“All the citizens who are being engaged are making a difference,” she added.

But many ferry advocates are unhappy with other aspects of the two budgets, particularly the one put forward by the Senate.

Both budgets have set aside funding to build new ferries in the next two years — welcome news for a ferry system that since 2007 has been painfully short of backup vessels. But neither budget, ferry advocates say, builds big, versatile vessels soon enough.

The Senate budget calls for the construction of four “Island Home” ferries — the 64-car boats that some say are impractical — in the next four years, but no 144-vehicle boats, which Washington State Ferries officials say the beleaguered system needs.

The House bill calls for three 64-car ferries to be built in as many years, followed by two 144-car vessels beginning in 2014.

Partial funding for the first two Island Homes is already included in the state’s current budget, but continued funding is needed if those boats are going to float any time soon.

The hefty transportation budget comes at a time when the state is facing billions of dollars in cuts across the board, but because funds for transportation are specially earmarked, they can’t be used for other needs such as education and health care.

And while ferry-service advocates are pleased to hear that boats will soon be built, they wish bigger boats could hit the water sooner.

“Even though the House bill is better than the Senate’s, it still doesn’t address the immediate needs of all ferry communities,” said Kari Ulatoski, who chairs the Island’s transportation committee.

With only one backup boat — the 34-car Hiyu — in the entire ferry system, whenever one boat is out of service, it means long lines and delays for riders.

“Those 144s have to start now,” Sipple said. “The 144s can replace any other boat in the whole system. They have enough capacity to avoid a huge problem whenever a ferry goes out.”

Under the Senate and House budgets, Plan B —

the ferry system’s much-criticized proposal that would have cut the north-end route from three boats to two — “is dead,” Sipple said.

The Legislature’s proposals are closer to Plan A, which doesn’t cut ferry service in the coming years and leaves room for some, though not much, growth in ferry-served communities.

But ferries chief David Moseley said he, too, disagrees with the Senate’s proposed budget, which specifically prohibits construction of 144-car ferries.

“We continue to believe that in addition to the 64-car boats, we need 144-car boats,” he said. “In general, I think given the economic conditions this is as good as we could hope for.”

The Senate would allow construction of 144s to commence in 2015; the House sets it at 2014. Neither is soon enough, some say.

Ulatoski noted that the new vessels were initially promised in 2003 and have been perpetually pushed back since then.

“There are no backup boats from 2009 to 2016 — that’s a long time to go,” said Liz Otis, another member of the Island’s transportation committee. “Obviously, money’s short and it may be challenging, but we should still keep pushing.”

Islanders were particularly troubled by the Senate proposal, a plan crafted largely by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), who chairs the Senate’s transportation committee. Indeed, some suggested the plan gives preferential treatment to her district — which includes Port Townsend and Keystone, the ferry-served communities that would get the first two Island Homes.

“I don’t like the Senate budget at all,” said Alan Mendel, who heads Vashon’s ferry advisory committee. “I am really tired of the idea of four little boats and nothing else.”

But Haugen said four Island Homes are all the state can afford in the next two years. What’s more, she said, Port Townsend has suffered considerably since December 2007, when the state had to mothball its four steel electric ferries for safety reasons. Two of those boats served the Port Townsend-Keystone route.

“In a perfect world, we might do something differently, but in order to keep fares low, we have to do something fiscally responsible — and that’s the way we’re going,” she said.

“I think we’re being fair,” she added.

Like Vashon’s advocates, some in the Senate also thought its bill did not go far enough to address the ferry system’s vessel crisis. Two lawmakers made a last-minute effort to amend the Senate version of the bill.

Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-San Juan Island) and Sen. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) introduced an amendment to the Senate budget that calls for three Island Homes and starting construction of 144-car boats in 2013, a year sooner than either chamber’s budget proposes.

“The 64-car ferries are

necessary — for the Port Townsend-Keystone route

(and) to replace the Rhododendron,” Ranker said. “But the idea that our fourth boat will be one of those smaller vessels does not work for me.”

Ranker and Kilmer’s amendment did not pass Monday night, however.

Ferry advocates say that the next couple of weeks will prove crucial, as the two chambers put together a conference committee to work out a compromise between their competing bills.

“Our legislators have been encouraging us to just keep the pressure on. Keep writing those letters,” Ulatoski said.

Sipple agreed: “What we have to do now is continue on with our letter-writing and our lobbying for moving up that 144 at least to 2012.”

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