State must fix WSF, not bail on it | Editorial

Privatization of the state ferry system — taking it out of the hands of the bureaucrats and unions and putting it in the hands of someone who knows how to operate a business efficiently — sounds like a good idea. But it’s not.

First, the state has an obligation to run the system. We’ve paid taxes to support a ferry system as part of our state transportation network. Communities, economies and industries have developed around that network.

Second, the public owns the ferry system. Although fares are climbing like rust on the Kaleetan, rate increases are relatively affordable, the ferries largely run on time, which is a big deal for commuters, and the state has been doing this for a long time so we generally know what to expect. There’s no guarantee of affordability and predictability if the system is placed in private hands.

Third, it’s too easy for the state to bail; it needs to fix the problem. The ferry system has become totally dependent on riders and it’s still not enough. The obvious savings would come from cutting the fat out of a bloated management bureaucracy. No other system is micromanaged like WSF: There’s an assistant transportation secretary for ferries, 14 ferry advisory committees, a ferry tariff committee, the state Transportation Commission, and the Senate Transportation Commission.

House Bill 1516 and Senate Bill 5406 set standards for ferry system improvement and creates another level of bureaucracy — a Washington State Ferries Accountability Board — to carry them out.

The bills intend to “Strengthen performance incentives for Washington state ferries managers; increase the accountability and transparency of ferry management and operations; improve service to ferry riders; and realize cost savings in the ferry system.” They set benchmarks for measuring improvements. If those benchmarks aren’t met by June 30, 2013, WSF must competitively contract out ferry system management functions to a private management services firm.

We don’t need another layer of bureaucracy to fix WSF. We need will. These bills clearly spell out the improvements the Legislature wants to see. The assistant transportation secretary for WSF should enforce those standards. If the benchmarks aren’t met, he should hire people who will meet them. If he can’t do it, the governor needs an assistant secretary who can.

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