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Video: Ferry Summit seeks solutions

The 180 people who attended the Dec. 7 Puget Sound Leadership Ferry Summit were accustomed to solving problems, large and small. Port Orchard Mayor Kim Abel, for example, arrived to find she had no pre-printed nametag while the tag for Port Orchard Public Works Director Maher Abed was unclaimed.

So she changed a few letters and walked around for the rest of the day with a nametag reading “MaYOr AbeL.”

This bit of improvisation served its purpose, but the ferry system is broken, and won’t respond to such resource-stretching measures that have been applied for years.

During an entire day of planning and analysis the solution was clear: Unless WSF gets more resources — that is to say, money from the state Legislature — Western Washington will have far bigger problems than creaky boats and cranky commuters.

Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman began the day with a comparison to the perilous Apollo 13 mission and its catch phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.”

“We are on a mission to work together in order to bring the ferry home safely,” he said. “A lot of people had the passion to bring the spaceship home. We have the same passion about Washington State Ferries here, and need to create a vision to find the way out. We are here to create a dialogue, not just defend our own positions.”

Bozeman noted that WSF has not had a sustainable funding source for several years, since voter-approved measures took most of the funding away.

“We’ve piece-mealed together ways to keep the ferries running under a high stress level,” he said. “This isn’t going to work any more.”

This was amplified by 26th District State Sen. Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor), who said after the conference, “We talk a lot about a ferry system. I think of it as an operating system, like on a computer, where we are living in a PC world and still using (outdated) VIC 20 code. We need to reboot this entire system, whether it is the facilities and the actual boats or the operations. I learned today there are a lot of people who are committed to this.”

The event drew a cross section of lawmakers and officials from throughout the region and, as U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s state director Chris Endresen said, “This is the first event that I’ve been to where everybody who needs to be here really is here.”

Even so, many of the attendees weren’t completely dialed in. Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbreuck arrived several hours late because he wasn’t aware of the Seattle-Bremerton ferry’s infrequent schedule.

“Initiative 695 took a big bite out of our ability to create a sustainable future,” said Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. “The entire state needs to care about this, not just the ferry commuters. Where the money comes from is always an issue. But we have to band together and find an appropriate source of funding for ferries and the rest of the state highway system.”

The event consisted of panel discussions in the morning, followed by breakout sessions in the afternoon. It ended with an address by U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Belfair).

One presentation by consultant Michael T. “Terry” McCarthy noted the condition of the ferry terminals. “In order to meet expanding needs,” he said, “the east side terminals need to grow.”

McCarthy first listed all of the aspects of an ideal ferry terminal, then provided a point-by-point demonstration the current facilities’ inadequacies.

The ideal terminal, he said, is environmentally friendly, provides easy access for pedestrians, vehicles and bicycles, seamless connection to public transportation, real-time consumer information and adequate restroom facilities.

Instead, current facilities have aging buildings, no ability to expand, wooden structures still in use, a lack of public facilities and information and environmental inadequacies.

“Change needs to be incremental,” McCarthy said. ”You can’t get new boats if we don’t have the resources to pay for them.”

“This is crucial to the state of Washington,” Dicks said. “Sometimes people forget this is the largest ferry system in the country and carries more passengers than AMTRAK.”

And the idea that you can do mass transit just by insisting on a higher level of fares is not proper policy, Dicks said.

After Dicks’ address, the participants resolved to concentrate on the funding problem, working steadfastly toward its solution. They decided to plan another one of these summits to gauge the progress in the near future.

To continue the space program analogy, this week WSF made one small step for ferry funding with the first on-ferry advertisements on the Seattle-Bainbridge boats. These full-paneled high resolution photographic images from outdoor outfitter Jansport are keeping with the idea that the ads should retain a Northwest flavor and not contain obtrusive or obnoxious images.

Compared to a $500 million shortfall, the $39,000 a month Jansport is putting up amounts to a drop in the bucket. Still, the program has the potential to defray expenses and not rely on fare box income for all expenses, according to WSF Northern Regional Manager Jayne Davis.

“We want to do this on a system-wide basis,” Davis said. “It will generate significant revenue, and is a way that we can help ourselves.”

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