POF funding passes at end of 2006 session

OLYMPIA — Kingston to Seattle ferry service will float again.

Just before the Washington State Legislature ended its 2006 session Wednesday evening, lawmakers gave their financial backing to passenger-only ferry operations, which could include Aqua Express.

A bill directing the state to provide funding for POFs passed March 8 with a 61-37 decision in the House and 43-2 vote in the Senate.

The bill helps create a financial account earmarked for operating or capital grants that can be sought by ferry operators. The initial funding source will come from the sale of the Washington State Ferries vessels Snohomish and Chinook, as sold by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

State Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island), who introduced the bill in January, said Gov. Christine Gregoire was hesitant to include language about using money from the general budget as additional funding, but that idea could always be revisited.

The 11-section bill includes language stating that a “public transportation benefit area” (i.e. Kitsap Transit) that wants to operate a POF between Kingston and Seattle shall first receive approval from the governor after submitting a complete business plan to the governor and legislature by Nov. 1, 2006.

Aqua Express spokesman Jim Boldt said the company’s partners are pleased with the decision, especially since the company has been asking the legislature to decide whether or not private companies would be allowed participate in the POF business. Boldt said Aqua Express officials are also happy with the relationship they have been able to maintain with Kitsap Transit and the fact that the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission issued the Kingston-Seattle route certificate in the first place — something he felt shows an obvious need for the service.

While there’s no date set on starting up service, “I can tell you a number of the hurdles have been removed,” he said.

However, Aqua Express is “livid” that the legislature included language in the bill that has set the company back another year in trying to establish a Southworth-Seattle POF operation, Boldt said.

Overall, the bill received fairly strong support from all sides through its tenure as it went back and forth between lawmakers the past two months. Rockfeller said the original bill received unanimous support in the Senate in January “so we knew going over to the House, we had good momentum from the Senate side.”

The initial purpose of the bill was to support a POF system for the Seattle-Vashon route, Rockefeller said, noting he felt the route was the anchor that was weighing down the state’s efforts to move forward with supporting other ferry routes.

“This is a great bill for Kitsap and specifically, I think it will help revive the Kingston to Seattle service,” he said.

The foot ferry issue has been on the table for a number of years, he said, as far back as 2003, when both he and Dist. 23 House Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Kingston) introduced legislation to allow local public transit authorities and private companies to run such services when it was obvious the state couldn’t support POFs.

“This year, in effect, we’re building upon that history,” he said.

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