Four new ferries called for in finalized transportation budget

In what some are calling a partial victory for ferry-served communities, the Legislature’s newly approved transportation budget calls for construction of four ferries in the next four years.

One of the four, a 64-car vessel, will likely replace the Rhododendron on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route as soon as it’s built, officials said — a much-needed upgrade to an old and sometimes too-small ferry.

“This is a huge step forward,” said Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island). “We have boiled this down to: What does the system need? We need boats.”

The goal of the budget, which was approved by the House of Representatives last week and the Senate on Sunday, is to have all four boats built as quickly as possible, she said.

Worrisome to some, however, is that the fourth boat may not be the larger one ferry-service advocates have been championing for months, and the boat’s funding hasn’t been set in stone, said Kari Ulatoski, who chairs the Vashon community council’s transportation committee.

“I was deeply disappointed in the lack of foresight our state Senate showed by not committing to a 144-car ferry to be built,” she said.

While she’s glad legislative language calls for the 2013 construction of a 144-car boat, which could be used on many different routes, she said it might never be built if it doesn’t get enough funding in upcoming budget rounds.

If and when a 144-car vessel is built, it is likely the north-end triangle route will feel a trickle-down effect and inherit a bigger boat from another route, ferry officials said recently.

Washington State Ferry chief David Moseley said he thinks the ferry system “made progress” in this year’s budget negotiations.

In addition to paying for ferry construction, the transportation budget funds the system’s current level of service and caps ferry fare increases at 2.5 percent per year, he noted.

Still, Moseley, like Ulatoski, acknowledged the budget falls short, failing to establish a sustainable source of funding for the ferry system. The budget allots money for the next two years but has not established a longterm source of dollars for the system.

Earlier this year, ferry-service advocates and ferry system officials had proposed new ways of funding the system for decades to come, including a car tab fee of a few dollars.

But the Legislature didn’t seem to seriously consider these ideas, said Gary Sipple, a member of the Island’s transportation committee.

He added that lawmakers did, however, listen to much of what ferry-service advocates had to say this spring.

In addition to circulating a petition calling for ferry funding, members of ferry-served communities held a rally on the steps of the Capitol in February and held many one-on-one meetings with state lawmakers about the importance of the ferry system to their communities.

“I’m pleased,” Sipple said, “because we ended up informing a lot of legislators on the details, which they admittedly would have never taken the time to learn.”

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