Gov. Christine Gregoire announced on Jan. 6 her plan to change the Washington state ferry system by creating a Puget Sound Regional Ferry District and eliminating the existing Washington State Ferries portion of WSDOT.
“Our current system lacks two critical things,” Gregoire said. “A dedicated source of funding and local leadership … to oversee a well-defined mission.”
The new ferry district would include Clallam, Jefferson, Kitsap, Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.
Clallam County Administrator Jim Jones said a county-run ferry system could be positive or negative, depending on details yet to be established.
According to Gregoire and a report created by the Passenger Vessel Association, privatization of the Washington state ferry system is not possible because fares would have to be raised extensively to generate a profit and people no longer would ride the ferries.
The Puget Sound Regional Ferry District would be funded by fares, a state subsidy and a regional
taxing authority, which Gregoire said will be decided by the district and only will affect the nine counties.
In 1999, when voters repealed I-695, the motor vehicle excise tax that supported Washington State Ferries, the ferry system lost one-fifth of ferry operational funds and three-quarters of its capital funds.
Since then the state has been bailing out Washington State Ferries by using highway funds, amounting to $760 million over the past 11 years.
The ferry system has been making cuts of $28 million per year and has eliminated 35 employee positions but still will lose $900 million over the next 10 years.
“We cannot bandaid the system any longer,” Gregoire said. “We’ve taken from the highway system as much as we can.”
Washington state ferries serve 23 million people per year, and Gregoire said she considers Washington state ferries to be part of the highway system.
“There is no way to solve the problem unless we find ourselves a different way to do business,” Gregoire said.
“The system is not financially sustainable,” said David Moseley, assistant secretary for Washington State Ferries, “It hasn’t been since the loss of the MVET … The one thing I do know is we can’t keep doing what we’re doing now. That won’t work.”
Despite the major change, Gregoire said, “I don’t want anyone to think that the state is going to give up on our responsibilites.”
Jones said if the state continued to kick in money to the ferry system, it could provide a good base for counties to build on.
Sens. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who is also chair of the Senate Transportation Committee; Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam; Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor; Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island; and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, issued a statement Jan. 6 declaring their opposition to the creation of a ferry district.
“The state’s not asking Seattle residents to pay special taxes for the tunnel or the 520 bridge. It’s not asking Spokane residents to pay special taxes for the North-South Corridor. It’s not asking Vancouver residents to pay special taxes to pay for the Vancouver-Portland Bridge. Our ferries are no less a part of the state h ighway system than these projects,” they said.
Jones said he isn’t surprised people are speaking out against the proposal, even though rules on taxes and fees for a new system haven’t been laid out yet.
“Quite frankly I don’t hear anyone who is ever for anything proposed these days,” he said, later adding, “It all depends on what really happens. I think it’s way too early to say if it is positive or negative.”
The Legislature is expected to consider the governor’s proposals during its session that opened Jan. 10 in Olympia.
Amanda Winters contributed to this report.
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