Foot-ferry fight heats up

The fight for continued passenger-only ferry service is heating up in Olympia, and the Bremerton-to-Seattle run could end up a casualty of that ongoing struggle.

Reps. Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo, and Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, rolled out a never-before-seen bipartisan water transportation strategy that would do just that before the House Transportation Committee last Friday.

They say the new passenger-only ferry strategy will continue state-run foot-ferry service at reduced levels on some runs, while expanding it to others, to avoid a complete shutdown on June 15.

“Washington State Ferries said it doesn’t have the money to continue the passenger-only ferry runs, so our focus has been on finding revenue,” Woods said Friday.

Rockefeller, vice chairman of the transportation committee, said he and Woods will continue to work toward a state solution even though ferry officials announced their intentions to cut the program for cost savings reasons in June.

“Continuing the passenger-only service for those who rely on it to get to work is what we’re fighting for,” he said.

The key component to the strategy, which hasn’t been formally unveiled in the Senate, would save passenger-only ferry service between Vashon and Seattle, add runs to Kingston and Southworth during peak commute times, and eliminate foot-ferry service between Bremerton and downtown Seattle.

The end of Bremerton service doesn’t sit well with the Ferry Advisory Committee serving that much-used route.

“It seems like they are providing fast ferries to everyone under this plan except for Bremerton, and it doesn’t make sense,” said Fred Chang, chairman of the Bremerton Ferry Advisory Committee. “They would add to Kingston and Southworth, and do nothing for Bremerton.”

Chang wondered at the reasoning, since he says more than 681,000 passengers hopped onto the Bremerton-Seattle route last year and only about 228,000 did the same on the Vashon run.

He also worries about the increase in commute times — moving from passenger ferries to auto vessels — for Bremerton ferry riders under this most recent foot-ferry proposal.

Woods said part of the strategy is to increase auto-ferry service in Bremerton to accommodate Bremerton passengers.

The Poulsbo lawmaker said ridership on the Bremerton-Seattle passenger route has slipped since the slow down of foot-ferry vessels in Rich Passage.

She said fare-box recovery hovers at a mere 27 percent, and a trip to Seattle on the passenger-only ferry is now only 10 minutes faster than a trip aboard the auto ferries.

Other components to the strategy include:

• Directing the state to increase the portion of passenger-only operating costs paid by fares, probably through a combination of higher fares and lower operating costs. The goal is to increase fare box recovery rates from 27 percent to a minimum 40 percent. Proposals include providing foot-ferry service during the heavy morning and afternoon commutes and eliminating two or three roundtrips a day.

“Giving up the midday runs of the passenger-only ferries will save enough on labor and fuel to continue the trips our commuters need most,” Woods said.

• Maintaining all existing auto ferries year round, including the Anacortes-Sidney run.

• Endorsing most of WSF officials’ strategic business plan, which involves reducing costs by 5 percent, increasing fares by 5 percent and generating 5 percent in new revenue through advertising and other marketing plans. Doing so is expected to fund two new auto ferries and one new passenger-only ferry — without a tax increase.

• Looking for $234 million in new capital funding for 2003-13 for two additional auto ferries, one new foot-ferry vessel, terminal preservation projects and terminal improvements.

Voter approval of Initiative 695 and, consequently, the Legislature’s elimination of the value-based car tab tax, removed the main source of capital revenue for ferries. According to the strategy unveiled Friday, the car tab tax — known as the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax — was expected to provide $170 million in ferry capital revenue for 2003-05.

Since 695, no new source has been dedicated to replace MVET.

The ferry strategy unveiled Friday was drafted by a bipartisan team of House members including not only Reps. Rockefeller and Woods, but several other lawmakers. Rep. Mike Cooper, D-Edmonds, Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Spokane Valley, and Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes are also on the panel, which met about 15 times in the last six weeks to draft a plan.

The House Transportation Committee also approved three passenger-only ferry related bills Friday, following the panel’s presentation. Supporters say the trio of bills act as a good back up to the panel’s proposed foot-ferry strategy.

“We are also taking sensible actions to prepare for the possibility that WSF simply won’t be able to continue running the boats,” Rockefeller said. “... the bills approved give us a ‘Plan B’ if we need it.”

The committee approved a measure prime-sponsored by Rockefeller that gives Kitsap Transit the go-ahead to seek voter approval to offer passenger-only ferry service in Puget Sound. A companion measure sponsored by Sen. Oke was approved by the Senate late last week.

The second measure approved by the committee, prime-sponsored by Woods, would exempt privately operated ferries from a rule that prohibits vessels from running within 10 miles of state-operated ferry route.

The third bill approved by the committee and co-sponsored by Rockefeller provides the ferry system with more flexibility to enact its new business plan by allowing WSF to sell space for advertising, and enter into leases for concessions even in parking lots. Charter rates could be figured based on competitive rates, rather than the current fixed-rate formula and all revenues generated would be dedicated to the ferry account.

“My priority is to help the Kitsap commuters who rely on the passenger-only boats to get between their jobs and their families,” Woods said.

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