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Ferry Special Report: WSF plan motivates riders

Southworth resident Jane Bedinger has a lot on her plate.

Her sewer system is broken, her son is applying to college, she works full-time as a Microsoft consultant and she’s on a mission to fix Washington State Ferries.

Bedinger is among dozens of west Puget Sound residents spending their spare time writing an alternative to WSF’s draft long-range plan. The newly formed “Citizens Write Plan C” group expects to bring its homegrown plan to the State Legislature in early March.

Organizers say the effort has ferry-served community groups, local politicians, WSF employees and citizens from around Puget Sound working together more than ever before.

“It has really taken fire,” said Bedinger, who serves on Southworth’s Ferry Advisory Committee. “It’s the most activity I have seen in years.”

Plan C is drawing from the energy – and in some cases anger – inspired by the release of WSF’s draft long-range plan.

The 22-year plan, due before the Legislature Jan. 31, is broken into two options. Plan A would maintain service on all routes, while building 10 new ferries. Plan B is being presented as a worst-case-scenario, in the event that new funding is not found for the system. It would gradually decrease service on many routes, including Bremerton and Kingston, while building only five new boats.

Hundreds of citizens turned out to public hearings on the long-range plan, held around Puget Sound in January. Many maligned Plans A and B as shortsighted, and offered their own solutions.

In the response to the plans, state Rep. Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor said he saw an outpouring of ideas with no productive outlet.

“It kind of clicked,”Seaquist said. “Instead of just griping, why don’t we all go to work and figure this out?”

So at a heated public hearing in Bremerton Jan 8, he invited the public to draft its own plan, a citizen’s “Plan C.”

The foundation for Plan C was laid at a meeting 10 days later. Seaquist said the summit drew not just representatives from Ferry Advisory Committees and the Ferry Community Partnership, but also local elected officials, transit representatives and WSF employees interested in helping draft an alternative plan. Ferry riders are also bringing a wide range of disciplines to the effort, with attorneys, engineers, software designers and other professionals lending their expertise.

“All we’re doing is tapping into that talent that is already out there,” Seaquist said.

At the recommendation of Seaquist, attendees at the Jan. 18 meeting were divided into six committees: fleet size and ferry construction; schedules and service; organization and policy; business plan; communications; and coordination and bill drafting.

Those committees are still at work researching and culminating ideas for their segments of Plan C. Bedinger, who is serving on the coordination committee, said hundreds of suggestions have also been pouring in via e-mail.

Bedinger said Plan C organizers are beginning their effort by identifying basic benchmarks, including what service levels are required on each route and what size of fleet and terminal facilities that service level will require, before working down to details. Included in the plan will be recommendations for sustainably funding WSF.

Bedinger said the group is aware that the looming state budget will mean tightening the belt at WSF. But she said Plan C will offer more creative ways of trimming costs than WSF’s Plan A and B, such as cutting administrative staff and adjusting schedules on individual routes.

The group hopes to have Plan C ready for Seaquist to take to the Legislature in early March. The tight timeline is the biggest challenge facing Plan C, Bedinger said.

“Can we row this boat fast enough?” she said. “I don’t know.”

In the meantime the Plan C group is doing what it can to sway policy makers. It’s using its Web site, CitizensWritePlanC.com to post open letters to WSF, circulate petitions, and publicize a Feb. 18 rally in Olympia being organized by Vashon Islanders.

Whether Plan C, is passed or not, Bainbridge Islander and Ferry Community Partnership organizer Debbi Lester said the effort has already left West Sound ferry communities better organized than ever before. CitizensWritePlanC.com and its network will likely be maintained on FerryWatch.org after the planning effort is complete.

“This effort is very much bringing in all the ferry-served communities,” Lester said. “It’s pretty thrilling.”

While Plan C has drawn widespread support in the West Sound region, not everyone is onboard with the effort. Bedinger said the group has had an especially difficult time reaching out to communities in the North Sound and in King County.

Orcas Island resident and San Juan County FAC Chair Ed Sutton said he would rather see citizen groups working with WSF staff to improve their plans rather than writing a plan from scratch.

“I think that Plan C is a waste of time,” Sutton said. “It’s an incredible waste of time.”

More important than operations strategies are the big money questions, Sutton said. What long-range financial suggestions will the Transportation Commission bring to Olympia? What commitment is the Legislature willing to make to building new boats?

“Unless the folks in Olympia make those hard decisions, it will practically be mute what plan you choose,” Sutton said.

As far as WSF chief David Moseley is concerned, any public engagement is good, whether it’s channeled into WSF’s plans or an outside effort such as Plan C.

“I think that any involvement that we’re getting from the public that is trying to address the financial unsustainability of the ferry system is positive,” Moseley said. “Because it addresses our core problem.”

Get involved:

The Citizens Write Plan C group will meet from 9 a.m. to noon on Feb. 7 at the Norm Dicks Government Center in Bremerton. A rally in Olympia is being organized by Vashon Island and the Ferry Community Partnership. The event is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 18. For more information see www.citizenswriteplanc.com.

This is one part of a four-part feature on Washington State Ferries. Also see:

Local lawmakers join together | Imagine no ferries | Commuters follow strict routine

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