Opinion

What is WSF doing with all of our nickels?

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Scott St. Clair, a freelance investigative journalist working for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, wonders why Washington State Ferries hasn’t built any new boats when it’s collecting gas tax money specifically for that purpose.

In 2003, the Washington State Legislature passed a transportation-funding gas tax increase of 5 cents per gallon. Euphemistically referred to as “The Nickel Package,” it was sold to the public as necessary for the survival of the state, and it continues to be paraded before us on countless highway billboards festooned with the slogan: “It’s your nickel, watch it work.”

When he signed it, then Gov. Gary Locke was quoted in the press as saying, “This is a very special day. This plan is an enormous victory for Washington citizens, our economy and the future of our state.”

Grown men were rumored to have wept they were so moved.

Included in the Nickel Package was some $298 million for four (five, if you include funding from other sources) new Washington State Ferry boats, together with modifications to several ferry system terminals.

The first of the new ferries was promised to be in service five years hence — in other words, this year.

To date, no one has been able to offer a review as to how the new ferry rides or whether it’s comfortable or well-appointed, for the simple reason that not a lick of work has been done to actually build it.

It’s your nickel – and mine. If we can’t watch it work, can we at least know what happened to it?

Not long ago, Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, put it succinctly in an article in the Peninsula Daily News: “Voters paid for four boats in the nickel gas tax increase in 2003. Where are those boats?”

Good question.

Since there aren’t any new boats, despite Nickel Package promises, the question becomes: What happened to the $298 million that was to be spent on new boats?

In other words, “Nickel, nickel, who’s got my nickel?”

The 2003 bill authorizing the new ferries says, “The Legislature intends to procure up to five or more ferries…to replace the four Steel Electric class ferries and continue service from Anacortes to Sidney...”

Citing safety concerns, Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond had the four Steel Electrics permanently withdrawn from service just before Thanksgiving of last year, with no replacements readily available.

The bill goes on to tell WSF that it “shall enter into agreements for the construction and acquisition” of new ferries. Yet even after the precipitous withdrawal of the Steel Electrics – the orderly replacement of which the Nickel Package was supposed to fund – the best Gov. Christine Gregoire can do is say that replacing them will be a “top priority” for the 2008 legislative session.

Oh, and then, per the governor, only three boats, not the number the legislature directed to be built five years ago.

What part of “shall” does she not understand?

Building a new ferry shouldn’t be that difficult. The 2003 Legislature raised taxes specifically to build them. It then appropriated the money and turned the matter over to so-called “experts” in the Department of Transportation and WSF, who all work for the governor.

But – too typical in WSF – there was more vessel constipation than construction.

In a classic example of top-down, Soviet-style one-size-fits-all central planning, WSF sought to cram a 144-car vessel down the throats of the Keystone (Whidbey Island) and Port Townsend communities then being served by Steel Electrics.

In turn, the communities rebelled, contending that, in addition to environmental concerns, their day-in and day-out experience with ferry-generated traffic necessitated a smaller number of vehicles at any one time.

It took WSF nearly three years before it finally listened and scotched the plan, and then only after spending millions on now-abandoned plans to move the Keystone ferry terminal to a location that would accommodate a 144-car vessel.

In the meantime, not a single keel has been laid for a new ferry. In fact, the best that’s been done is a contract signed by Gov. Gregoire in February of this year for the construction of three 144-car vessels that are of no use on the Keystone-Port Townsend run.

For that, she and the Legislature seem to be creeping toward something called an Island Home-class with capacity for 64 cars.

And this only after the bid for an originally proposed smaller ferry based upon one currently being leased from Pierce County was rejected after it came in 40 percent higher than expected.

That none of this resembles what the Nickel Package outlined and promised back in 2003 goes without saying. But it’s all too symptomatic of what we’ve come to expect from both WSF and Washington State transportation policies generally.

Instead of leadership, accountability and action, the people get confusion, buck-passing and slothfulness.

The top of this hourglass is filled with identified needs and ideas to meet them, but they never seem to make it through to the bottom – there are more bottlenecks here than in a brewery.

To mention a few (aside from those already mentioned), the 2003 Nickel Package legislation that called for five new boats also required that they be “constructed within the boundaries of the state of Washington...”

Since there are now only two companies qualified to do this work (a third is in bankruptcy), and since the governor is pushing hard for them to not engage in competitive bidding, but, rather, to jointly put together a proposal, the nickel-paying public will be at the mercy of whatever the now effectively one proposal entails.

Surely there are other qualified boat yards in the United States (federal law requires U.S.-flagged vessels be built in the U.S.) that might be interested in a piece of this action.

And it’s not as though all WSF vessels are home-grown – a San Diego firm built the first “superferry,” Hyak, in 1966.

While it’s hopeful that a local firm could be competitive enough to secure a contract to build new ferries thus keeping those jobs here, the state highway system, of which WSF is a part, belongs to all the people, and it should be run for their benefit.

If this means having a new ferry built along the Gulf Coast in order to save money or get it here sooner, don’t the Legislature and WSF owe it to all the people to make that an option?

In every legislative session since the passage of the original Nickel Package, the public has been treated to the likes of open-ended, non-requirement requirements directed toward WSF.

For example, a 2007 piece of legislation obtusely says, “The Legislature finds that the Washington State Ferries has commenced a vessel procurement process ... and that this process must move forward with all speed.”

No deadlines, timelines, specific direction or anything. In typical double-speak, we get a “law” that has more holes in it than the bottom of an old Steel Electric ferry.

If they want, legislative budget writers can restrict appropriations by insisting they be spent on specific projects within a specific time frame, such as parking re-surfacing for the Friday Harbor ferry terminal (in the 2007 legislation).

Why couldn’t they have restricted Nickel dollars for new boats the same way? Spend the money that’s supposed to be for new boats on ... new boats. And get them built by a date certain.

In the legislation from the original Nickel Package bill until now, the legislature and the governor have said this will happen or that needs to take place. The reality is that we’re not much further along than we were when Gary Locke signed the original Nickel Package bill back in 2003.

Now, the Tacoma News Tribune has WSF boss David Moseley promising three 144-car boats to begin construction in 2009 with delivery of the first in 2010.

To replace the Steel Electrics on the Keystone-Port Townsend run, he also promised two 64-car Island Home vessels, with the first in service by early 2010.

Are these shades of the promises of 2003?

Since then, the Legislature has spent millions of dollars on studies that always then seem to defer to WSF and its “expertise.”

Yet this same agency has been responsible for creating all the bottlenecks to the construction of new vessels in the first place.

Here’s another one: In the 2007 bill calling for a consolidated bid proposal for new boats, the Legislature required the shipyards to use four previously purchased engines, which are too large for the type of ferry needed to replace the Steel Electrics.

In other words, the state wants four power plants that can only go into three 144-car vessels that can’t service the Keystone-Port Townsend run that was served by two Steel Electrics, the replacements for which were envisioned by the 2003 Nickel Package and are now “top priorities” for WSF, per the governor.

If you had trouble following this non sequitur, welcome to the club.

Maybe the extra engine can be permanently displayed in a museum dedicated to how not to do things? Or sold on E-Bay much the same way WSF tried to sell its passenger-only boats a while back?

Just who runs this place anyway?

Since its passage, the Nickel Package has collected millions and millions of dollars in nickels. Their use in bringing new boats on-line has, to date, been nil.

There has been activity reminiscent of driving in sand – the more you spin your tires, the stucker you get – but no real progress.

And we’re left asking what happened to all those nickels for new boats? How much of that money has been spent so far and where?

An answer would be nice, but in order to get one a substantially more thorough investigation of WSF finances is in order – one that only can come about through a dollar-for-dollar analysis of WSF capital operations performed by someone with the necessary statutory authority.

In the meantime, the people have been once again promised new boats, just as they were in 2003 in the original Nickel Package, which also promised new boats.

I have to ask, is this latest promise any good? Or like its predecessor, is it worth nothing more than a plugged nickel?

Scott St. Clair is an investigative journalist working under contract with the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia.

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