Opinion

Editorial: Vashon’s foot ferry: awash in controversy

Vashon Island gets little attention during countywide political races, and for the most part, that has been true this year — in the wide-open contest for the next King County executive.

Note that there have been no candidate debates on the Island, no obvious politicking and only a handful of fundraisers — most of which have been for Councilmember Dow Constantine, whose council district includes Vashon.

And yet a prize service on Vashon, the passenger-only ferry boat, has suddenly become one of the biggest issues in the race for county executive, a contest that in the last week or so has turned hotter than an August afternoon.

A couple of the candidates want to spike the newly created King County Ferry District and its demonstration routes across Lake Washington altogether; some want to eviscerate it, keeping the Vashon route alive only long enough to figure out next steps.

And all of them are making charges and counter-charges, creating a lively debate that has lit up the blogosphere.

To Islanders, many of whom wonder what they get from King County in exchange for their escalating property taxes, the debate is ironic at best, painful at worst. In its heyday, when there were several more runs across the Sound, the PO boat, as it’s called, ferried more than 200,000 people a year between Vashon and Seattle. This past year, it carried 121,000 people — not an insignificant number on an Island with a population of 11,000. Ride it on a typical weekday morning, and you’ll be pressed to find a seat.

But some candidates, such as Councilmember Larry Phillips, say a county service targeted only at a portion of the county can’t justify a countywide tax base. Take away the other demonstration routes, Phillips says, and suddenly you have a county program that benefits “only one corner of the county” — something he says is not equitable.

That’s not only a bitter pill for Islanders to swallow — it also flies in the face of the way our whole democratic society is structured. Not everyone uses Medicaid, and yet our taxes fund it. Not everyone lives near rivers, and yet the county supports flood districts. Some live near light-rail and will be able to use it every day; others (read, Vashon Islanders) may never find an occasion to use it.

Reason is often lost in the heat of a political battle, and with the primary only weeks away and five strong candidates vying for the region’s top position, reason seems in particularly short supply right now. We can only hope that when the waters calm and a new executive is in place, the PO boat will again be viewed for what it is — a small but vital piece in a complex regional transit system, a piece that serves tens of thousands of taxpaying commuters every year.

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