Local ferry meeting awash with concerns

KINGSTON — As the 2.5 percent fare increase and the 25 percent peak season fares took affect in the Washington State Ferry system Tuesday, commuters in Kingston marked the occasion with a meeting to discuss their continuing concerns about the system and where it’s headed.

Twenty-third District representatives Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island) and Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo) were present to answer questions about their recent legislation to freeze ferry fares, analyze the Washington State Ferry system and help get a passenger-only ferry running from Kingston and other parts of Kitsap County across Puget Sound. The bill still requires Gov. Christine Gregoire’s final approval. The Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee hosted the forum, which brought about 30 residents to the Kingston Community Center for the discussion.

“Thanks again for all the work you both have put into the foot ferries,” said Kingston Express Association manager Nels Sultan. “I just have one question, ‘What kinds of comments and advice can you give us to move forward now?’”

The best thing commuters and passenger-only ferry proponents can do is make some noise, Appleton replied. They need to lobby hard to get the state’s attention now that the Legislative session is over and there are potentially more than two years when the ferry system will be under scrutiny.

“The ferry advisory community has been very quiet,” she said. “Now is the time when you all have to start lobbying.”

Raising a ruckus did work in the case of many commuters, including Kingston resident Betsy Cooper, who wrote letters to WSF, Rolfes, Appleton and other legislators about having trouble getting to the Sounder train from the 6:30 a.m. Kingston ferry. That ferry now leaves on time to make the connection, and WSF officials are examining whether they want to change it to a 6:25 a.m. ferry for the summer.

“The premise is that the letter does work, the ferry officials do take it seriously,” Cooper said. “It did enable the commuters.”

Among the commuters and local residents was ferry worker TK Barrows, who felt concern from both an employee’s perspective and a taxpayer’s point of view. She said many ferry workers have the same worries, and hope the system will be thoroughly reviewed. WSF employees see every day how frustrated commuters are and how much time they spend to get to jobs on the other side of the Puget Sound.

“What I would like to see is a rebuild of the system,” Barrows said. “We have to do something, this has got to stop. I would really like to see the community become active in helping this stop.”

If the bill is signed by the governor, Rolfes, Appleton and several other groups plan to conduct a ridership survey, work on new fare strategies and analyze the capital funding. The system is audited annually, and in 2006 $10 million was unaccounted for, Rolfes said. Apparently, this is not an uncommon revelation. She and Appleton said it was time the system was investigated in detail, and both acknowledged private businesses would not be able to continue running the way WSF has the last several years — increasing prices and decreasing ridership.

“Our cumulating timeline ends in June 2009, a few months before the fall deadline,” Rolfes said. “That’s focused work done for the next two years.”

“I’d like to get the fares rolled back,” Appleton added. “I feel we are supporting the whole system, and it shouldn’t be like that.”

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