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Private ferry operators battle union for the high seas

OLYMPIA — While the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific recently protested Aqua Express’ application to establish a passenger-only ferry run from Kingston to Seattle, the private company doesn’t expect the union’s actions to anchor its initial commuter sailings.

“Our startup date isn’t until September anyway,” said Aqua Express spokesperson Jim Boldt, noting the company had planned for such delays while preparing its application for state authorization to operate such a run. “It’s not going to effect our operational date.”

Planning ahead meant steeling for potential legal ramifications, such as being ready to defend any issues the union may try to dispute in Aqua Express’ application. Sure enough, in the union’s formal protest was filed May 5 with the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, the board that regulates and authorizes transportation services in the state. It addressed several concerns:

•A need for the ferry service was not fully explained in Aqua Express’ application

•By providing runs at peak hours and lower tariffs than Washington State Ferries, Aqua Express will “skim the cream off of WSF’s business,” putting the system in worse financial dire straits, potentially leading to cancellation of WSF runs and a loss of jobs

•Aqua Express service also “appears very likely to have a very serious detrimental effect on WSF,” depriving WSF of revenue, public support and the ability to reestablish WSF passenger-only ferry runs in the future

•Aqua Express would impact IBU-represented WSF concessionaire employees

•Aqua Express would impact air and water quality in the region

•Aqua Express’ financial resources were not detailed in the application and only limited financial statements were provided

Following the filing of the formal protest, the UTC board earlier this month stated that the union would be allowed to address the UTC board on two issues — finances and operations — in a hearing before the commission.

This week, both parties presented their arguments before the board in Olympia, debating finances on Monday and operations on Tuesday.

“There were no surprises and we were pleased the way the day went,” Boldt said Monday of the day’s hearing.

He also noted that the protest was nothing new to Aqua Express officials.

“We are not surprised that the union protested,” Boldt explained. “They are doing what they need to do for their members. (However), we were pleased that most of their protests were not allowed, down to the two points.”

Representatives from the IBU did not return the Herald’s phone calls by press time.

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