WSF talked, didn't listen at Bainbridge meeting | Val Torrens


Attending information-gathering meetings can be very educational. It can tell a lot about the organization seeking the input. Sometimes the agenda is very clear and the information sought is to determine which way to go. Other times, the agenda is stated but what is not brought up says more about what is really going on. The latter is the kind people have learned to distrust and with good reason – they are aimed at getting the answer the group asking for the input wants.

It is the latter type that I experienced when I went to the Bainbridge meeting that Washington State Ferries (WSF) recently held. The fact that the meetings were held as a direct response to legislation speaks volumes about how much WSF really wants to hear from those who rely on the ferries for their transport to/from work, medical care and myriad activities.

WSF pointed to ESHB 2358 – the recent bill passed by the legislature – as their directive for what was being asked of those in attendance. To quote their handout, “Specifically, the legislation directed WSF to study: ridership forecasts, level-of-service standards, operational strategies, pricing strategies and terminal design standards.” Of that list, the only feedback WSF was seeking was for the operational and pricing strategies.

Organizationally, everything was well done. There were four tables, each with a facilitator equipped with easel, pad and markers. There were blown up poster boards of each of the nine options that WSF sees as answering ESHB’s requirement “ … that the Department of Transportation adopt adaptive management practices in its operating and capital programs so as to keep the costs of the Washington state ferries system as low as possible while continuously improving the quality and timeliness of service.” The nine options are pricing, reservations, transit access enhancements, technologies for improved fare collection, non-motorized access enhancements, enhanced user information, promotion of non-SOV (single occupant vehicle) modes, traffic and dock space management, and parking and holding.

It was clear that WSF only wanted feedback for those parameters. After reviewing the options, the attendees were asked to put dots by those strategies they felt would work best. Apparently, the idea that none of the them were palatable and thus other options might be explored was not considered.

That did not sit well with several people in the room including Rep. Sherry Appleton. She asked that a “None of the Above” option be placed out for voting. Despite that being done part way through the dot voting, enough dots were placed by it that it made the top five list for further discussion.

People then went back to a table to discuss further the reservation and pricing options only. Each option was discussed separately and reported back to the group at large. Rep. Appleton and I were the only ones at the “None of the Above” table. Our comments covered a number of pages with the overriding point being that the WSF problem is a state one, not a local ferry user one. WSF issues must be solved by using state resources. The local user well has run dry.

The meeting ended with two of the three transportation commissioners who were in attendance sharing their thoughts about what faces WSF and its users. The commissioner from Chelan stressed that we must keep in mind they have the whole state to look after and that equity is a key in their decisions. Apparently equity only exists in how to spread the dollars collected. How equitable is it for the residents of Puget Sound to pay for the roads in Eastern Washington when they won’t help out the marine highways known as WSF? This point is so hot that any time anyone brings it up, the conversation immediately gets changed.

But, the comments by Commissioner Bob Disler show exactly why ferry riders will get nowhere until Rep. Appleton’s objective of a separate ferry commission is achieved. He ended the evening by exhorting those in attendance to lobby their legislators to get the changes they want.

At that point, both Representatives Appleton and Rolfes had already left. Knowing how hard all our nine elected state officials work on behalf of our ferry needs, I could not let that be the final word. I told Mr. Disler that what he said was an insult to our representatives and all the hard work they already do. I also said that it is his and his fellow TC commissioners’ representatives that need to be lobbied, not ours. If Commissioner Disler is representative of the TC, then it is only a matter of when, not if, WSF will sink.

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