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Olympia Bureau | Gregoire proposes creation of a regional ferry district
Gov. Christine Gregoire announced Jan. 6 a proposal to change the state ferry system by creating a Puget Sound Regional Ferry District and eliminating Washington State Ferries from the state Department of Transportation.
"Our current system lacks two critical things," Gregoire said. "A dedicated source of funding and local leadership ... to oversee a well-defined mission."
The new ferry district would include Clallam, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit and Snohomish counties.
According to Gregoire and a report created by the Passenger Vessel Association, privatization of the state ferry system is not possible because fares would have to be raised extensively to generate a profit and people would no longer ride the ferries.
The Puget Sound Regional Ferry District would be funded by fares, a state subsidy and a ferry district tax, which Gregoire said would be decided by the district and would only affect the nine previously mentioned counties.
In 1999, when voters repealed I-695, the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, which supported Washington State Ferries, the ferry system lost one-fifth of ferry operational funds and three-quarters of its capital funds.
Since then, the state has been bailing out Washington State Ferries by using highway funds, amounting to $760 million over the past 11 years. The ferry system has been making cuts of $28 million per year and has eliminated 35 employee positions, but will still lose $900 million over the next 10 years.
"We cannot Band-Aid the system any longer," Gregoire said. "We've taken from the highway system as much as we can."
Washington State Ferries serves 23 million people per year, and Gregoire said she considers the state ferries to be part of the state highway system.
"There is no way to solve the problem unless we find ourselves a different way to do business," Gregoire said.
Assistant Transportation Secretary David Moseley added, "The system is not financially sustainable. It hasn't been since the loss of the MVET ... The one thing I do know is we can't keep doing what we're doing now. That won't work."
Despite the major change, Gregoire said, "I don't want anyone to think that the state is going to give up on our responsibilities."
Gregoire's proposal would require approval of the Legislature.
Democratic senators Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, who is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, Kevin Ranker of San Juan Island and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch issued a press release on Jan. 6 stating their opposition to the creation of a ferry district.
“The state’s not asking Seattle residents to pay special taxes for the tunnel or the 520 bridge. It’s not asking Spokane residents to pay special taxes for the North-South Corridor. It’s not asking Vancouver residents to pay special taxes to pay for the Vancouver-Portland Bridge. Our ferries are no less a part of the state highway system than these projects."
State Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, said she's reserving judgment of the proposal until a detailed plan is released, but the governor's idea is not a new one. Regional leaders have considered taxing districts before as a way to fund the system without raising fares.
"It's not a new concept, but it was a concept that people couldn't accept," Appleton said.
Kitsap residents, especially those in the developing Kingston and Bremerton communities, are also aware of the system's value to their livelihoods. They rely on it whether they use it daily or not, Appleton said.
"Till you see the details (of the plan) it's impossible to commit," she said.
Appleton doesn't expect to see further details on the taxing district proposal until after the Legislative session starts Monday.
Other legislators in ferry communities were not so sanguine.
“The purpose of a state highway system is for all the people of Washington State to benefit," said Ranker, who represents the ferry-dependent San Juan Islands. "We must remember that thousands of Washingtonians depend upon ferries to get them to work, school or to receive medical care. Ensuring a high level of service is critical in these economic times.
"I believe that we are one state united in commerce, recreation, and trade. I do not believe that regionalizing our transportation system will help us emerge stronger and more united from this recession. The working families I represent deserve the same support for their transportation needs as working families across the state. I will continue to work with the Governor to develop solutions that will provide the necessary infrastructure for all communities to benefit.”
Story by JANELLE KOHNERT
WNPA/UW Olympia Bureau