A ferry service by another name ... might still have problems

Trying to maintain or improve state ferry service for routes connecting Kitsap County to the east side of Puget Sound would be difficult even without the current economic recession.

Changing the name to “Washington State Marine Highway System” might help, if there really are people who disagree with the idea that the cross-Sound ferry routes are part of the highway system.

Saying at every opportunity that the state Constitution recognizes that cross-Sound ferries are a part of the state highway system might even help a little, if there are people who dispute it.

Neither the name change nor the repeated reference to the constitution is likely to make a substantial difference.

The constitution was amended in 1944 to limit the use of revenues from the motor vehicle fuel excise tax and vehicle license fees. The revenues were earmarked for “highway purposes” which can include ferries that are actually a part of any highway, road or street.

This amendment did not require any level of funding for ferries, nor did it identify any ferry routes that are part of the highways. It merely authorized the legislature to identify those routes and spend some of the revenue on them.

The state did not take over the cross-sound ferries until several years after the amendment was adopted, and even then the costs of the ferry system were to be met entirely by the fares paid by riders.

The questions after 1944 were similar to the questions now. What routes should the Legislature authorize and fund as parts of state highways — and what share of costs should come from tax revenues rather than fares?

The Consti-tution didn’t answer either question then or now. It only authorized the legislature to use the fuel tax and license fee revenues for ferries.

When the legislature adopts the state budget, funding for both the operating expenses and capital costs for the ferries is determined by considering the competing requirements of all highway purposes.

Unfortunately for ferry users, the problem lies not in anyone’s obstinate refusal to think of ferries as a part of the state highway system but instead in the fact that they are a very expensive part of the system.

According to Mr. David Moseley, the head of Washington State Ferries, the system takes about 12 percent of the Department of Transportation budget but provides less than 1 percent of the “roadways” – roadways being defined as “mileage and passengers, people using that highway.”

Even though ferry riders pay the majority of the operating costs, they do not pay a majority of the total cost of providing the ferry service. Tax revenues pay more than half the total cost.

Motor vehicle fuel tax revenues already earmarked by the legislature for ferry operating and capital expenditures don’t cover the share paid by taxpayers. In recent years, many millions from other accounts have been spent on ferries.

The problem is not that the legislature has looked first to the ferries for spending cuts. It is that the legislature is not likely to continue taking revenue from accounts designated for paved highways and spending it on ferries.

While it may be helpful to talk about the importance of our ferries to us, we have to recognize that the paved roadways throughout the state are just as important to a lot more people.

Our level of ferry service isn’t what many people want, but neither is the level of service for communities that must wait their turn for state funding of their highway needs.

Ferry riders and ferry-dependent communities need a way to explain why it makes economic sense to continue spending more tax revenue on ferries than on roads when the costs are compared based on the number of people using them.

If the benefit to ferry riders isn’t enough to justify fares that cover more half the total cost, how does it make economic sense for people who don’t use the ferries to pay the difference?

Whether some new tax or a different distribution of current tax revenue is proposed, winning the competition for funds requires a showing that the result makes sense.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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