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The nighttime lifeline - Proposal to cut late-night ferry sailings puts livelihoods in jeopardy

Laura Beth White studies tax law for her University of Washington evening masters program on the 10:30 p.m. ferry to Bremerton. She relies on the late-night ferries to commute home from school. - Lynsi Burton/Staff photo
Laura Beth White studies tax law for her University of Washington evening masters program on the 10:30 p.m. ferry to Bremerton. She relies on the late-night ferries to commute home from school.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/Staff photo

Laura Beth White, a Bremerton resident who takes night classes at the University of Washington, finishes school at 8:50 p.m. twice a week. From the campus in Seattle, she can’t make the 9:05 p.m. boat home, so she takes the one at 10:30 p.m.

“I just read for two hours each day,” White said of her round-trip commute, working on her homework on the 10:30 p.m. ferry Jan. 3 for her masters of tax law program.

But her ride home is in jeopardy, with Gov. Chris Gregoire proposing to cut all sailings between Bremerton and Seattle after 9:05 p.m., as part of a $20.5 million cut to Washington State Ferries in the 2011-2013 budget. The legislative session that will determine whether the cuts are approved begins Monday.

“To cut the ferries would be devastating,” White said.

She listed the extra time and money that a car commute would require — a three-hour round trip, tolls at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, campus parking expenses and additional fuel costs — but said she would have no other alternative but to drive.

“I guess I would have to,” she said.

White was one of several Bremerton residents on the homeward-bound 10:30 boat whose lifestyle, and even livelihood, was dependent on the late-night sailings. In what lawmakers call a “catastrophic” prospect, the strength of Bremerton’s Seattle connection could wane, not only disrupting the lives of Bremertonians who work and play in the city, but preventing money-making entertainment and businesses that rely on nighttime ferry traffic from coming to Kitsap.

A ‘STUPID IDEA’

Bremerton resident Mychal Johnson, who works in Seattle as a government contractor, estimates a vehicle commute would cost him up to $30 a day, between gas costs, Seattle parking fees and bridge tolls.

“I can’t drive,” he said.

He chatted on his 10:30 p.m. boat home with other Bremerton residents who rely on the late sailings, including Mike Snider, who works as a security officer at the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in Seattle.

“Everyone that’s on swing shift would be without a ride home,” Snider said.

Randy Blok, who works as an engineer in Seattle, wondered how Kitsap residents would get home from Mariners games in the summer.

“When baseball season comes, what are they gonna do?” Blok said. “It’s stupid. You wanna save money, you don’t cut two ferries from the Bremerton run.”

Cutting those two ferries will save Washington State Ferries more than $1.5 million, according to numbers provided by the agency. Coupled with the potential elimination of a midday roundtrip — proposed by the ferry system in October — Bremerton’s service reductions would save the state more than $2.2 million. Cost-wise, it is the second-biggest service cut proposed, topped only by reductions in the San Juan Islands circuit, which would save the state more than $2.3 million. Ferries to and from Southworth would have reduced weekend hours for eight weeks in the fall and spring and reduced vehicle capacity by 37 car spaces on one vessel year-round. Kitsap’s two other ferry routes — Bainbridge Island and Kingston — would be untouched.

The 11:40 p.m. boat from Bremerton to Seattle has the lowest ridership of all sailings between the two cities — it averaged 14 walk-on passengers and 11 vehicles per weeknight in May 2010, according to Washington State Ferries. But the late night sailings from Seattle to Bremerton rival the ridership of the morning commuter boats, with 139 total passengers on an average weekday 10:30 p.m. boat in May 2010 and 112 on the 12:50 a.m. ferry.

Those later boats home make enjoying the Seattle nightlife possible for people like Abe and Megan Norman, who took the 10:30 home after celebrating their wedding anniversary with dinner at the Space Needle. Having just moved to Bremerton from California, they bought a membership to the Pacific Science Center in the hopes of attending its evening events, but soon they may not be able to.

“That would be terrible,” Abe Norman said. “That would not be cool. You couldn’t go out to dinner.”

The nighttime boats offer an escape from the doldrums of Bremerton, Megan Norman said.

“I don’t think Bremerton’s really happening at nighttime,” she said.

Jason Dunham and his friends took the 10:30 home to Bremerton from a Seattle trip they took because they were “bored.” They don’t do it often, he said — maybe once a month. He is more concerned about the ferry employees who would get reduced work hours and the livelihoods of the workers who rely on the ferries to commute.

“It should be a crime to cut any hours out,” Dunham said. “Every class of people from doctors down to day laborers ride this boat.”

Dunham’s friend, Brent Messner of Bremerton, feared the loss of an evening Seattle escape.

“That just seems like a stupid idea,” he said, adding that he would be even more bored than he already is if he couldn’t occasionally take the boat to Seattle.

NEW POTTERSVILLE?

Andy More, co-owner of the Charleston rock club on Callow Avenue, is already having a hard time booking Seattle bands because they wonder how they will get to Bremerton if the late ferries are cut — some assume it already happened.

As it is, bands try to schedule their sets earlier in the evening so they can catch the 11:40 p.m. boat back to Seattle, he said.

More uses that ferry as a selling point to draw bands from across the water, telling them it’s a cheap, easy way to travel, but without that option, it will be harder to draw bands who don’t want to drive.

“A lot of bands don’t want to drive for an hour after they just played an hour-long set,” More said. “They will definitely think twice before booking a show.”

Gentry Lange, owner of the Hi-Fidelity Lounge on Sixth Street, said the elimination of the late-night sailings could increase business and bring in live music fans who would have otherwise gone to Seattle, but the downside is that bands won’t be as willing to travel to Bremerton, reducing the bar’s pool of performers.

“I think it’s really going to eliminate a lot of the Seattle bands from playing in Bremerton,” he said. “They don’t really like to drive around.”

Lange estimates about a quarter of Hi-Fidelity’s performers come from Seattle. Ferry cuts aside, it’s difficult enough to draw good Seattle acts to Bremerton — some bands specifically leave Bremerton out of their touring circuits because of its lackluster reputation, which Lange likened to “Pottersville,” the run-down, tycoon-owned town depicted in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“Maybe we should just name it Bedford Falls and people would come to Bremerton,” he said.

He’s also had bartenders with second jobs in Seattle who rely on the late ferry to change shifts, he added.

Without the nighttime connection to the state’s cultural center, Bremerton will be more isolated from the entertainment world, More said.

“It’s going to make Bremerton seem a lot further than it actually is,” he said.

‘ONE MORE OBSTACLE’

Tim Ryan, CEO of Poulsbo-based Tim Ryan Construction, is developing a plat at First Street and Pacific Avenue and is trying to market the site to restauranteurs and retailers. As the owner of a handful of buildings in downtown Bremerton, including the 44,000 square-foot, four-story building on Sixth Street and Pacific Avenue, he uses his properties’ walking distance from the ferries as one of their main draws. But if ferry access is reduced to limited hours, reducing potential business, he doesn’t know how he’ll market the buildings.

“It’s a tough sell anyway in the market right now,” Ryan said. “You talk to a client about that and they say, ‘Well I better go to Bainbridge Island then, or stay in Tacoma.’ You’re just throwing in one more obstacle.”

His First and Pacific property is adjacent to a new restaurant under construction, the Bremerton Bar and Grill, scheduled to open in April. Mayor Patty Lent said she fears a chunk of its business could be lost before the restaurant can even establish itself.

“People that work in the shipyard and take ferry home would stop there,” she said, “but they’re going to be affected.”

She also said the late-night ferry cuts could jeopardize attendance of the movie theater planned for the corner of Park Avenue and Burwell Street.

On the whole, Lent said the ferry reductions would halt the progress of the downtown revitalization efforts that have shaped the neighborhood — mostly the area surrounding the ferry terminal — for much of the past decade. The construction projects largely revolved around Bremerton’s position as a ferry community and included the underground ferry tunnel, Harborside Fountain Park, Kitsap Conference Center and downtown marina. Other construction projects are underway, such as the Park Avenue Plaza, which includes the movie theater and a parking garage, but Lent said a reduction in ferry service could put new investment in the area to a stop.

“I think it would stagnate for awhile,” she said. “It takes away any opportunity for people to come to this side and pay money here. It will have a tremendous trickle-down effect.”

Ryan worries about the tenants in his buildings — such as the engineers at Distributed Energy Management on Pacific Avenue - who work late at night and use the late ferries to go home to Seattle. He said the ferry cuts would reduce Bremerton to a restrictive nine-to-five business, like a bank.

“I think it’s devastating to even think about it,” he said. “To think this can just be cut off, that’s absolutely unrealistic.”

FIGHTING BACK

The Ferry Community Partnership and Ferry Advisory Committees representing ferry cities throughout the state have collected more than 2,200 hard-copy signatures and 265 online signatures as of Tuesday in a petition drive to counter all service cuts to the ferries. Having collected signatures since mid-December, ferry activists hope to deliver 20,000 names to the governor and Legislature.

The petition also calls for a permanent source of state dollars to help build boats, the construction of a 144-car boat in 2012 and a long-term budget plan for the ferry system that caps fares at “reasonable rates.”

State lawmakers representing Bremerton have vowed to oppose all service cuts at ferry community meetings, but concede this year’s budget crisis — a $4.6 billion state deficit for 2011-2013 — will make the fight difficult.

“It is going to be harder to do that than ever,” said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, adding that losing ferry service is not an option. “Reducing service will be catastrophic for our cities, families, business, employees. That’s our highway.”

Seaquist said Washington State Ferries can afford to make other cuts, such as reducing staff at its Seattle headquarters.

David Moseley, assistant secretary for Washington State Ferries, said at a Dec. 16 ferry community meeting in Bremerton that even if the ferry system eliminated its administrative and management positions — amounting to $9 million — it would not be enough to offset the $20.5 million that need to be cut. Vessel and terminal operations make up $341 million — or 80 percent — of the ferries $436-million budget.

“I don’t agree with that,” Seaquist said of the ferries’ resistance to cutting more staff. “We believe that there are other ways to make significant savings. We’re frankly not sure why the ferry system is taking all these cuts.”

Moseley also said Bremerton is affected in the budget cut proposals more than most other ferry communities because it is a more expensive route to operate than others in the county. Bremerton fares only cover 49 percent of the route’s operation — losing more than $10 million from the summer of 2009 to the summer of 2010 — while the fares paid at Kingston and Bainbridge Island cover more than 100 percent of their operating costs.

Rep. Christine Rolfes, D- Bainbridge Island, said the key to successfully maintaining service is for all ferry communities to work together — not for Bremerton to argue for cuts to Bainbridge Island or Kingston, for example.

“To cannibalize each other would be the wrong way to go right now,” she said.

Ferry communities also must make the case that ferry cuts won’t just prevent people from going to sports events or the opera, but that they will damage the cities’ vitality and ability to create jobs, Rolfes said.

“We’re going to have to be able to make the argument that these are not just inconvenient to our cities, but that these services are vital to the economic recovery of Bremerton,” she said. “We need the reliability of knowing that we’re connected to the rest of the state for the limited hours we already have.”

Rolfes said the ferries can save money by reducing administrative costs and changing its overtime policy. She also believes that the rest of the Department of Transportation’s budget has not been scrutinized as much as the ferry system’s budget and believes more cuts should be spread around. The Department of Transportation is being asked to slash $212 million from its budget, including the ferries’ $20.5 million cut.

Elected officials still believe they can prevent service cuts in Bremerton. Lent said that she, four City Council members, Seaquist, Rolfes and members from each local Ferry Advisory Committee recently met with a transportation adviser to the governor to discuss ways to shift more state general fund dollars to the ferry system.

Seaquist is also trying to organize a meeting between Lent, City Councilman Adam Brockus, members of the Ferry Advisory Committees and Washington State Ferries budget experts to try to identify alternate savings outside service cuts. Seaquist hopes the group will meet next week.

“They’re all willing to look at it,” Lent said. “We don’t close highways. Why would you take ferry runs, which are our marine highways? Service has to be maintained.”

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