Report calls ferry model ‘unusual’

Washington’s ferry system has an unusual governmental structure.

Unusual in a bad way, that is.

Broadly, that’s what the Passenger Vessel Association found during a $90,000 study completed on Sept. 8.

By Sept. 15, Gov. Christine Gregoire had requested another study from the association to recommend suggestions for how to improve the ferry’s governmental oversight.

“I asked the PVA to identify and outline the governance models used in ferry systems in North America,” wrote Gregoire in a letter, “including the structure and funding mechanisms of the various models, and analyze the advantages and disadvantages of models and how they would apply to the operations of the Washington State Ferries Division.”

They did.

The association analyzed seven different systems for ferry governance, including Washington’s, and compared the effectiveness of each.

In addition to Washington, the association analyzed ferry systems in Massachusets, California, New York, North Carolina, British Columbia and one between New York and Connecticut.

Each had a slightly different governmental structure except North Carolina’s and Washington’s, which each fell under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Transportation.

Other governmental structures analyzed included a publicly owned corporation, a private company with public terminals, a private company, a ferry system run by the transportation district and an independent authority under the state.

Gregoire received the 113-page report on Dec. 21, and leaders from several relevant groups said they haven’t yet had time to digest it or decided which ideas to support.

“Clearly the ferry system is not sustainable at this time,” said Steve Pierce, communications director for the state’s Department of Transportation. “So we need to figure out what we need to do to get to a system that’s sustainable. But at this time, we’re not in a position to say we favor one system over another.”

Walter Elliot, co-chairman of the ferry advisory committee, agreed the current governmental model is unsustainable.

“I’ve seen, over my six years of ding this,” he said, “that ferries planning seems to go in one direction then change and go in another direction, and change and go in another direction.

“It’s difficult to do in a direct path,” Elliot said.

Similarly, the first report from the Passenger Vessel Association found that the ferries suffered from “excessive oversight.”

However, he also said that he hopes the state introduces a new structure that includes more input from passengers.

“I’m frustrated that, even though riders pay 70 percent of the operating costs, they really have no seat in decision making,” Elliot said.

But the governor has suggested that just keeping the ferries around will require major changes to the system.

“Washington’s ferries connect our communities, families and economy,” she said, “but today the system faces a budget shortfall, and it is necessary to examine options to keep the system in service.

“This report,” Gregoire said, “will provide needed information as we consider ways to support our ferry system.”

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