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Ferry bills hit mixed waters in Olympia

OLYMPIA — Two bills, one from the House and one from the Senate, are looking at separate outcomes as the Legislative session sails toward an end. House Bill 2358 is facing sink or swim negotiations in the Senate, while Senate Bill 5862, is moving on smooth waters with a slight breeze as it waits for Gov. Christine Gregoire to sign it.

“It has passed the Senate and the House,” said 23rd District state Sen. Phil Rockefeller, who is a secondary sponsor of the bill. “We were concerned about the House, but it was passed with 45 yeas, three nays and one excused. It passed overwhelmingly. Now the governor is considering it. I think she will, I don’t see any reason why she would hesitate to sign it.”

The bill would extend the date passenger-only ferry funding business plans could be submitted by public transportation groups from November 2006 to November 2007, as well as specify more clearly the type of business plan needed to receive the financial assistance.

“I’m not sure how helpful this will be to Kitsap County at this point,” Rockefeller said. “The Kingston Express Association is not in a position to benefit from this legislation.”

The KEA is a group of commuters who hope to form their own passenger-only ferry after Aqua Express service was suspended Oct. 1 2005 due to low ridership. It is considered a private group, but only public transportation groups, like Kitsap Transit, would be able to send in their business plans to the state for perusal.

When voters downed a 3/10ths of a cent increase in sales tax proposed by Kitsap Transit to fund foot ferry service in February no other public groups came forward to try their hand at running a Kingston/Seattle boat.

House Bill 2358, continues through a storm of negotiations in the Senate as primary sponsor 23rd District Rep. Christine Rolfes fights to keep the key elements intact. The bill would freeze any fare increases by the Washington State Ferry system for the next 18 months so it can reevaluate and improve its business model, as well as incorporate community groups more effectively.

“We’re still in deep negotiations with the Senate,” said 23rd District Rep. Sherry Appleton, who is a secondary sponsor of the bill. “I don’t feel good about the bill right now. Mostly they want it stripped down. We’re standing firm on what we want though.”

Rolfes said Thursday a decision had been reached regarding the ferry freeze — the current 2.5 percent increase proposed would take place May 1, but no other increases would be allowed for two and half years. This would give WSF and government officials a chance to reevaluate and work to find a new way to fund ferry service. This decision still needs to be OK’d by the Senate and the House.

“The Senate version is significantly different than the House version,” Rolfes said. “There’s been a negative reaction from two senators from the north Puget Sound region... There are several differences in people’s districts. We remain hopeful we will get a good bill out of this.”

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