King County executive candidates spar over foot ferries

The King County Ferry District plans to add two new runs to the popular passenger-only boat.  - Jim Evans Photo
The King County Ferry District plans to add two new runs to the popular passenger-only boat.
— image credit: Jim Evans Photo

All five of the major candidates for King County executive have proposed dramatically curtailing the county’s newly formed ferry district, with some even suggesting the route between Vashon and downtown Seattle be axed.

The King County Council formed the ferry district two years ago, funding it to the tune of 5.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value or $18 million a year. The plan was that the district would pick up two existing runs — the Vashon-Seattle passenger-only service and the West Seattle Taxi — as well as fund five demonstration routes across Lake Washington and other parts of the Sound.

But with a deep recession, a hemorrhaging Metro transit system and a fierce battle for the county executive seat, the tide has suddenly turned on the small ferry district, a proposal that only a few months ago was being heralded as an innovative response to crowded highways.

Ross Hunter, a Democratic state lawmaker from Me-

dina, and Larry Phillips, a Democratic county councilmember, have both said the 5.5 cents in taxing authority should be redirected towards Metro.

Hunter would end the ferry district altogether, according to his Web site and his spokesperson, Cynara Lilly. Phillips, in a telephone interview, said he too would direct all of the ferry district’s tax dollars to ferry district’s tax dollars to Metro but would keep the ferry district alive and use its reserves to maintain the Vashon route for about two years — with an eye toward figuring out its future then.

County Councilmember Dow Constantine, a county executive candidate whose council district includes Vashon and who has been a champion of the ferry district, has also called for shifting the ferry district’s tax authority to Metro while finding another way to keep both the Vashon-Seattle and the West Seattle taxi service afloat. In a news release issued Monday afternoon, he called for directing the ferry district’s reserves to flood control projects.

Fred Jarrett, meanwhile, a Republican-turned-Dem-ocratic state lawmaker, has not only questioned the foot ferries but has also said that the costs of the Vashon route should be “scrutinized.” Former television news anchor Susan Hutchison, too, has been critical of the ferry district’s costs.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has added to the spirited debate. Two weeks ago, he led the charge against the ferry district’s costs in a column headlined “The folly of foot ferries.” In a column in Sunday’s paper, he wrote a satirical obituary, pronouncing the ferry district dead, with the Vashon Island route and the West Seattle taxi “on life support.”

Incensed by his column, State Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) cancelled her subscription to the Times and urged others to boycott the newspaper.

Nelson, who used to work as Constantine’s chief of staff, said the column — coming one day before the Times endorsed Jarrett and Hunter for county executive — was really a jab at her former boss.

“The column was over the top,” she said.

Westneat, for his part, said he was surprised by the call for a boycott, since — in his initial column — he called the Vashon route “the only one that’s actually defensible.”

“You can no longer find anyone on the (county) council who says you should keep the entire ferry district going,” Westneat added. “I don’t know why that’s a boycottable opinion.”

The issue of the ferry district’s fate will likely soon come before the county council for a vote. County Executive Kurt Triplett, working to backfill a Metro deficit that county officials said will reach $90 million next year, has proposed that 4.5 cents of the ferry district’s 5.5 cents in taxing authority be shifted to Metro — a move that would save five planned new routes in Metro’s highest ridership corridors and provide for an additional one million new passenger trips a year on the 520 bridge, according to a news release.

According to Triplett’s plan, the Vashon route would continue another four years, “enough time to see if the economy improves and to allow the next county executive to come up with a plan,” said Natasha Jones, a spokesperson for the county.

But the lively debate and the dizzying back-and-forth have proven frustrating to Vashon’s ferry-service advocates, who say it’s ridiculous that the small ferry district has become one of the hottest issues in the race over who will lead the county, a region struggling with a wide range of problems.

“I’m furious. I’m appalled that they’re making the passenger-only boat the center of their attack,” said Kari Ulatoski, an active player on ferry issues in the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council.

Only two years ago, the county council overwhelmingly approved the creation of the new ferry district, she noted. The sudden turn of events, lead initially by Hunter and quickly followed by Phillips, amounted to “political grandstanding” by the various candidates, she added.

“It denigrates the entire county council and shows a lack of professionalism and guts,” she said.

Kathy Shaw, who heads a committee focused on the Vashon passenger-only route, agreed.

Most Islanders benefit little — and some not at all — from a number of county transportation initiatives, she said. “What about light rail? We’re paying for that, and yet we’re not riding it.”

“I was writing letters like mad all weekend,” she added.

Some Islanders are particularly critical of Phillips, who, in a new release issued Thursday, said it’s not equitable to use a countywide tax to provide services such as the Elliott Bay water taxi and the Vashon passenger ferry, “which only benefit one corner of the county.”

Phillips voted for the ferry district two years ago, Vashon ferry-service advocates point out.

Constantine also took aim at Phillips, calling his move “a cheap political ploy.” The ferry service, he added, should be seen not as a luxury but as a kind of “rural bus route.”

Phillips, reached Mon-day, said he supported the ferry district two years ago when it was structured as a countywide program — with a countywide tax paying for foot ferries in a number of council districts. To end the five demonstration projects but keep the Vashon and Elliott Bay service alive, he said, amounts “to a bait and switch.”

“It’s no longer a regional service,” he said.

Constantine, considered the Democratic frontrunner, according to some polls, has also come under fire. Westneat, in his column Sunday, quoted County Councilmember Kathy Lambert as saying she felt forced to support the ferry district’s creation because Constantine told her he wouldn’t support money for flood-control levees if she didn’t.

The Seattle Weekly, in a blog entry on Monday, took issue with Constantine’s call for the ferry district’s reserves to be used as a loan for county flood control efforts; the blog dismissed Constantine’s suggestion as “a political tourniquet.” And Hunter’s campaign issued a release Monday questioning Constantine’s ethics.

Constantine’s campaign

spokesman, Sandeep Kau-shik, said Lambert’s accusations are untrue and that there was no horse-trading for the ferry district. What’s more, he said, several of the other candidates have completely flipflopped on the ferry district; during a debate only two weeks ago, Phillips offered up his hearty support for it, Kaushik said.

Meanwhile, Kjristine Lund, the ferry district’s executive director, said the agency is moving forward with its plans, which include enhanced service to Vashon.

“Nothing has changed at this point,” she said. “I think that’s important for people to know, so they don’t get whiplash from all the political rhetoric.”

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