Opinion

Once again, lawmakers found funds for ferries | Commentary

By GREG BEARDSLEY and TODD PEARSON

For The Beachcomber

We really could not have hoped, as recently as a month ago, that this legislative session would prove to be so positive for Vashon and the other ferry-dependent communities in Washington.

Maintain current level of ferry service? Check. Allocate funds for another 144-vehicle ferry? Check. Provide additional funds against fuel cost increases? Check. In the midst of these harrowing financial times, the state legislature found a way to do all these things, quieting our fears of some less savory eventualities. Now we hope to be moving toward a future with more certainty about the stability of Washington State Ferries (WSF), our lifeline.

The state legislature was able to maintain funding for the current level of ferry service through June 2013. That outcome was very much in doubt, as a billion dollar shortfall forced legislators to make across-the-board cuts to many programs. We owe a great vote of thanks to our local legislators and well-deserved support at the polls. Their colleagues, from other ferry-served communities, and the leadership of both parties on the Transportation Committees also deserve our thanks. Indeed, we are indebted to the entire legislature for recognizing the crucial role ferries play in our lives.

Perhaps as importantly, the legislature looked beyond our immediate needs to provide funding for a second 144-vehicle ferry scheduled to be delivered in 2016.  Committing scarce funds for this vessel will add capacity to our north end route, and it is an encouraging sign of things to come. WSF studies have shown that it needs to build 15 boats over the next 30 years to keep the average age of each boat in the fleet under 60 years. Our elected representatives seem to be working toward that goal, regardless of the financial difficulty.

Are we living happily ever after?  Someday soon, we hope, but not yet. We have already lived in the land of “happily ever after” in the days before revenue from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax was lost in 1999.  Until a comparably stable, permanent source of funding is established for WSF, legislators must continue to scramble each year to maintain the existing level of ferry service and to finance construction of new boats.

We have been very fortunate that our state leaders have found ways to fund our ferry system in the last few years. While we appreciate their ability to continually wiggle out of this tight spot, the urgent need to find long term funding has grown more acute every year. As tax revenues diminish, so do the potential sources of funding into which they may dip. Ultimately, if things continue on the current path, the moment will come when there will be no place left to turn.  We saw a glimmer of that during this legislative session, when the very real possibility was raised that our Tahlequah and Southworth routes might be eliminated altogether. This may have seemed like a hyperbolic threat, but it is certain that, unless permanent funds are found for WSF, real world cuts to our ferry service may drastically alter our lives on Vashon.

This year, many of you wrote to legislators with emotional pleas to save our ferries. You told them of the devastating effect the loss of those two ferry routes would have on your lives. I believe the letters written here and in other ferry communities helped to stave off a real threat to our way of life. Your voices mattered.

The 2013 legislative session will provide the moment of truth. Even our most committed, creative legislators may not be able to find money to maintain our ferry service. If they can’t find permanent funding, everyone in Washington’s ferry communities is in big trouble. This is where you come in, again. We will have to speak up, louder than last time, and in far greater numbers. There is no doubt that together we have made, and can make, a huge difference.

Those of us involved in ferry activism are trying to find ways to make it easy for you to connect with your elected officials. We need your help, but it shouldn’t take more than five minutes of your time, several times later this year.  By enlisting your help, and literally thousands of your neighbors now, we will be ready to act before the inevitable crisis comes. In the coming months, we’ll tell you specifically how you can help. Let’s go back to the days of “happily ever after” by convincing our legislators that they must find permanent funding for WSF.

 

— Greg Beardsley and Todd Pearson, longtime Islanders, are ferry-service advocates.

 

 

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