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Rough budget waters threaten foot ferries

A House Democrat transportation plan introduced last week would boost passenger-only ferry services in Kitsap County, lawmakers say.

But key transportation leaders in the Senate apparently don’t harbor a similar commitment, casting doubt on the survival of the House Democratic proposal to fund foot ferry service from Kingston and Southworth to downtown Seattle.

Senate floor leader Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton said she was “blindsided” last Friday when Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, presented in caucus an early working document that provided zero funding for the expansion of passenger-only ferry service in Kitsap County.

“I just wasn’t expecting it,” Sheldon said. “There was no reason to expect the money wouldn’t be there. Even the last Senate Transportation proposal presented last July had funding for passenger-only ferries in Kitsap. It’s in the House proposal.”

Haugen couldn’t be reached for comment as of press time.

While the proposal floated by Haugen last week during a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting is not formal, it indicates the level of commitment among leaders to fund foot ferry services connecting Kitsap with the East Sound, officials say.

Haugen’s draft proposal also relied on a 9-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase to be phased in over three years, weight fees and car–sale taxes.

Sheldon worries what could happen when to the prevailing House plan once it moves to the Senate.

House Democrats last week unveiled a 10-year, $5.6 billion transportation revenue package designed to shore up ferries and unclog the state’s worst traffic choke points.

The House Democrat proposal, which House members could vote on as early as this week, also calls for a public vote on June 20.

That package hinges on an 8-cent-per gallon gas tax increase to be phased in over two years and would dedicate $595 million for ferry terminal upgrades and the purchase of four new auto vessels to replace aging boats.

It also allocates $98 million for the operation of passenger-only ferries, including two runs from Kingston and Southworth to Seattle.

“My concern reflects Sen. Betti Sheldon’s concerns,” Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, said. “This is shaping up to be a difference of opinion and it works that way in the legislature.”

In addition to his concerns with developments in the Senate, Rockefeller worries about an alternative transportation plan introduced by House Republicans.

While the GOP version does provide a clear list of funding alternatives, it doesn’t provide a glimpse at what projects new revenues would fund, Rockefeller said. That means there is no earmark under the House Republican either plan to fund passenger-only ferry service expansion in Kitsap County either.

The House Republican proposal relies on a 7-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase, to be phased in over two years and a 15 percent increase in gross weight fees.

Also under the plan, one-half of 1 percent of the existing sales taxes on new and used vehicles would be earmarked beginning in 2004 for multi-modal transportation projects rather than the general fund.

That concerns Rockefeller, who worries about removing revenues from the general fund. The general fund, already vulnerable to a $1.6 billion budget hole, pays for health care costs and education in the state, he said.

The House Republican plan also would use the existing 6.5 percent sales taxes on new highway construction would also be allocated for transportation funding.

Sheldon, who sits on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she’s working on rallying for support this week to remind lawmakers passenger-only ferry service is a vital link in Kitsap County.

Foot ferries are less cost-efficient than car ferries. While fare-box recovery for auto ferries hovers around 65 percent, fare-box recovery for passenger-only ferries is about 20 percent. Also, claims that fast, foot-ferry wakes damaged shorelines in Rich Passage may have haunted foot-ferry expansion efforts.

“It’s just not acceptable that the money was taken out,” Sheldon said. “There was no warning, no heads up.”

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