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Citizen ferry plan would limit fare increases, build bigger boats

An alternative vision for Washington State Ferries offered up by the "Plan C" citizen group Monday would set a cap for fares while constructing bigger boats and minimizing terminal improvements.

The Plan C effort – billed as an alternative to WSF's proposed long-range Plans A and B – has been developed over the last two months by citizen committees rallied by Rep. Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor. The effort has drawn input from ferry employees, local elected officials and hundreds of citizens.

Plan C was formalized over the weekend and organizers hope it will provide guidance as the Legislature drafts its budget.

On the operations side, Plan C proposes that 70 percent of WSF's costs be collected from fares. Organizers say tying fares to operations costs would lessen the system's dependence on fare increases. Under the plan the other 30 percent of operations costs would be covered by state and federal subsidies.

On the capital side, Plan C would address the boat shortage on the Port Townsend-Keystone run by upgrading the steering systems of the Evergreen Class Klahowya and Tillikum ferries to allow them to be operated on the route. The improvements would cost $10 million for each boat, according to Plan C organizers.

It would then initiate the construction of four boats over the next six years, beginning with one Island Home ferry. Then three 144-car boats would be funded over the next two bienniums.

Meanwhile, terminal maintenance and repair would be either turned over to the Department of Transportation (WSF's parent agency) or cut to a minimum.

A reservation system, which has been proposed for system-wide implementation by WSF, would be used only at the request of individual ferry communities under Plan C.

For both the operations and capital budgets, savings found within the ferry system would be kept in WSF's pot and the agency would announce annual savings goals.

Bremerton City Council Member Adam Brockus, who has helped coordinate the effort, said the intent is to encourage innovation.

"Right now there is no incentive for anyone to save money in the system," Brockus said.

The citizen plan calls for the creation of a citizen committee to examine fares structures and fuel surcharges. The unpaid committee would be made up of riders, WSF employees, ferry-served community members and Ferry Advisory Committee representatives. It would be modeled after the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee

Finally, Plan C calls for a study of new level of service standards for the system. Brockus said the levels will be developed with an eye to Puget Sound Regional Council's population projections.

The Legislature will begin crafting a budget for WSF later this month, and it has a smorgasbord of studies and plans to work from.

WSF has submitted its long-range Plans A and B, which offer visions for the system's next 22 years of operations. Plan A would maintain current levels of service while adding some capacity. Plan B would scale back service on most routes while relying on locally-funded passenger ferries to pick up the slack.

The governor's proposed budget closely followed Plan B for the next biennium.

On Monday, the Joint Transportation Committee and the state Transportation Commissioneach gave reports on long-range financial studies for WSF.

Plan C organizers will add their vision to the mix with a presentation to a legislative ferry working group this month.

Rep. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge said she is impressed by the Plan C proposals she seen thus far.

"A lot of the recommendations are consistent with the direction we are going and they are very practical. So it's very promising," Rolfes said.

Learn more about the Plan C effort at www.citizenswriteplanc.com.

Look for a full story on ferry planning in the Herald's Friday edition.

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