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Ferry riders descend on Olympia
"No one ever said life was fair, but who's to say that life can't also be what we make of it? With that platitude in mind, lawmakers representing Kitsap County and other ferry-dependent communities are joining forces this legislative session to ensure the Washington State Ferries (WSF) system establishes fair, ferry fare increases this spring, A daunting task, considering the Tariff Policy Committee is currently proposing to raise Central Sound auto ferry fares by at least 20 percent, and passenger-only ferry fares by another 135 percent this May. Most of all, lawmakers want to ensure the WSF system as a whole is preserved by establishing, once and for all, a permanent source of state funding to replace what was lost when the motor vehicle excise tax fund was slashed last year. Hundreds of ferry-dependent commuters from Kitsap County, as well as those from Vashon Island, heard these messages loud and clear as they crowded the Capitol steps during the 2001 Ferry on Feb. 22. Rally attendants jumped aboard one of three boats that shuttled them from Kitsap County to the Olympia marina that Thursday morning. From the marina, they walked uphill toward the Capitol campus, toting signs that called for action. Yesterday. Rally attendants said they are up to the task at hand. It's time for the state to meet its responsibility, said Democratic Rep. Phil Rockefeller of Bainbridge Island, causing an eruption of cheers among rally attendants. We need real, long-term funding solutions - we need accountability and efficiency throughout the system and we need a fare structure that keeps ferries affordable for working families.Ferry service, said Rockefeller, is a necessity, not a luxury. As a Kitsap representative, Rockefeller was not alone in his call for reforms. Also attending the rally were the remaining members of the legislative ferry caucus, including Rep. Beverly Woods, R-23rd District, Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-35th District, Rep. Bill Eickmeyer, D-35th District, Rep. Pat Lantz, D-26th District and Rep. Brock Jackley, also of the 26th District. Also attending were Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-35th District, Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-23rd District and Sen. Bob Oke, R-26th District. During the rally, Kitsap lawmakers contended that the ferry system is part of the state highway system and, as such, must receive permanent state funding. Only problem is, ferry caucus members and constituents alike must convince the unconvinced - the representatives from counties not dependent on ferries before the next biennium budget is written and approved. Lawmakers, including Kitsap County Commissioners Chris Endresen of Poulsbo and Jan Angel of Port Orchard, urged the crowd to break off into groups following the rally and speak with legislators. It seems just like yesterday when we were last here, said Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-23rd District, referring to the 2000 ferry rally at Olympia. Let's make sure we don't have to again. Please go visit our (Kitsap lawmakers) colleagues in the Senate and the House and tell them about your concerns. Most attendants did just that and, if they didn't get a chance, most planned to e-mail key lawmakers shortly after the event to offer not only their concerns, but suggestions on how to make the ferry system work. Willem Maas of Vashon Island suggested forming a regional transportation authority among the ferry-dependent counties that could oversee the ferry system. Don Bulmon of Bremerton suggested cutting down on passenger-only mid-day sailings, and saving operating revenues for the heavily used rush-hour runs from Bremerton and Vashon. Oke had a wilder idea that drew guffaws and some cheers from the crowd at the steps. He suggested that Kitsap ferry commuters should organize and drive around the sound by way of the Narrows Bridge one day with a sign on board their vehicles that read: I usually take the ferry, today I am driving. That way, said Oke, citizens will realize just how necessary the ferries are to the entire highway system. By most accounts, rally attendants felt pumped up about the event, especially because they made some noise at the Capitol along with their lawmakers and made known their presence as a vital component of the voting public. Diane Smart rode the catamaran down from Bremerton that Thursday. She works for the City of Seattle, lives in Bremerton and uses the passenger ferry five days a week to commute to work. Smart conceded she could live in King County to avoid the necessity of the ferry system, but who can afford to buy a house in that market? Not her, she says. She doesn't mind the impending ferry fare increases, so long as they remain fair and don't break the budget of working families. Louis Mitchell, also of Bremerton, couldn't agree more with Smart. Mitchell moved from upstate New York recently to be guardian to his ailing sister in Kitsap County. Once a week, they travel to the University of Washington for special treatments not available anywhere else on the Peninsula. His family heavily depends on the reliability of the ferries and their affordability. But it could be more than a month or two before the fate of the WSF system is decided, and Maas, Bulmon, Smart and Mitchell receive answers. Three committees in the House and Senate, both nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, are wrestling with funding questions. In addition, multiple funding sources exist for the WSF system. Ferry-related bills, sponsored by Kitsap legislators, must also move out of their respective committees by early March, or they get the ax. Perhaps the most intriguing is a measure recently introduced by Rep. Rockefeller. HB 2123 calls for boosting the amount of the existing gas tax currently dedicated to ferries by three and one-half cent per gallon. Three of those cents could go toward ferry capital, which could produce about $200 million each biennium. The remaining six-tenths of one cent could appropriate $40 to operations each biennium. That means this bill could provide the level of funding recommended by the Joint Task Force on Ferries. The bill would also create a separate WSF department that would handle all ferry activities currently handled by the Department of Transportation and the Transportation Commission. "