Task force to study POF

With a budget deadline looming and no agreement on whether state or private operators should be allowed to offer South Kitsap passenger-only ferry (POF) service, state lawmakers decided not to decide — and instead created a committee to study both sides of the debate.

“There was great conflict in the Legislature about how to approach this issue,” said Jim Metcalf, legislative liaison for Kitsap Transit, the agency hoping to facilitate a Southworth-to-Seattle POF service to be operated by a private ferry company.

“As we got down to the last few days of the session,” he said, “Gov. Gregoire’s office suggested postponing any final decisions until the following session.”

Transportation budget proposals released by the House and Senate last month proposed diametrically opposite approaches to providing POF for South Kitsap residents.

The House proposal supported state-run service, allocating the Washington State Ferries a requested $3 million for improvements to two mothballed vessels — the Chinook and Snohomish — and upgrades to the ferry terminals at Southworth and Vashon for a new triangle route.

However, the Senate budget called for the mothballed ferries to “be sold and the proceeds placed in an account which may be accessed by transit agencies in need of capital funds to initiate passenger-only service,” and provided public transportation funds “solely for competitive grants for a county or local government to provide (POF) services,” including $1.75 million for a Seattle to Vashon route.

Currently, neither approach will move forward, as Metcalf said the final transportation budget approved by both legislative houses does not funnel funds to either state or private operators, but instead puts the starting of any new POF service on hold until the 2006 session.

In the meantime, he said, a task force will be created to study the issue and report back to the governor.

According to Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6091, which outlines the legislative plan yet to be approved by the governor, “...the committee (is) to administer a study of the most reliable and cost-effective means of providing (POF) service.”

The committee’s 18 members will include four legislators — the chair and ranking members of both houses’ transportation committees — and 10 stake-holders, which Metcalf said he expects will include one representative each from King County Metro, Kitsap Transit, and from both private ferry companies interested in providing POF service.

The last six stakeholder spots are reserved for ferry users, which Metcalf said he expects will be taken by three Vashon customers and three potential Southworth customers, though the “appointments are up to the governor.”

Once the committee is formed — a process that Metcalf said probably wouldn’t even begin for a month — it will examine several aspects of POF service, including each provider’s long-term viability, potential cost to passengers and state money needed to operate, and report its findings to legislators by Nov. 30.

Although Gregoire has yet to officially sign the bill into law, Metcalf said since this approach was suggested by her office he was “pretty comfortable this is the way (the state) will deal with the problem.”

And though the plan effectively puts South Kitsap POF service on ice for a year, Metcalf said he did see positive aspects to giving the issue a closer look.

“At least they’re involving real customers, and not just representatives from the government or commercial interests,” he said, explaining that he expected the report from the committee to be more well-rounded than a recent analysis from the state Department of Transportation. “The committee’s composition will do a better job of making sure all the interested parties are represented.”

Metcalf said the deadline for Gregoire to sign or veto all bills is May 17.

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