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Lawmakers pass bill to create ferry surcharge

The fate of a new surcharge that would be added to all Washington State Ferries fares, along with legislation aimed at ferry management reform, is now in the hands of the governor.

This week, Senate Bill 5742 cleared the Senate floor with a 36-9 vote. With its companion bill in the House having already passed, 77-14, ratification by Gov. Chris Gregoire is the only step left for the bill to become law.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, was one of the bill’s chief sponsors. In an interview Thursday, she expressed great confidence that the governor would not only sign the bill, but that it would make it past her desk largely intact.

“I know she’s going to do it,” Haugen said. “I was in her office until about 10:30 last night talking to her about it.”

The ferry legislation aims to accomplish several things, from increasing revenues and reducing costs to holding managers — including ferry captains — accountable for performance.

First and foremost, the bill seeks to create a Capital Vessel Replacement Account and would empower the state Transportation Commission to impose a 25-cent surcharge on all ferry fares. The revenue, estimated at about $4 million a year, would be used solely to fund the construction of new vessels.

The first boat built would be a 144-car ferry. Which route it would serve has not yet been determined, but Haugen said she has some ideas of where she would like it placed.

“It could very possibly go to the Clinton route,” she said. “It’s one of the places that definitely needs a bigger boat.”

Funding for new ferries has been scarce since the discontinuance of the motor vehicle excise tax in 1999. The fund contributed roughly one-fifth of Washington State Ferries’ operating funds and three-quarters of its capital fund.

The construction of three 64-car Kwa-di Tabil class ferries, replacements for the four 64-car Steel Electrics retired in 2007, are the first state ferries built in more than a decade. The Chetzemoka entered service this past November, the Salish is undergoing sea trials, and the Kennewick is still under construction.

The Chetzemoka and Salish are to serve the Coupeville-to-Port Townsend ferry route and the Kennewick — christened Friday in Seattle at Vigor Shipyard (formerly Todd Pacific Shipyards) — is destined for the Point Defiance-to-Tahlequah route.

The bill before the governor also seeks to reduce operating costs. If ratified, Washington State Ferries would be exempted from having to pay sales and use taxes for fuel, which would save up to $4 million a year, Haugen said.

Finally, the bill aims to implement management reform by moving the Marine Employees Commission under the state Public Employment Relations Committee. By 2013, the commission would be dissolved altogether.

While the move is expected to reduce administrative costs, perhaps the biggest change is that the bill requires the department of transportation and the office of financial management to report on certain performance measures.

And on the hook for achieving some of those measures would be ferry captains. The bill essentially makes them managers, and like any manager, they would be held accountable for their performance. Haugen said boat skippers weren’t happy about the change, but that it was an element needed to achieve greater accountability.

According to the final bill report, if at least 80 percent of each performance target is not met by 2013, a governor’s management representative would be appointed to develop a 12-month corrective action plan.

It also states that the department would be charged with soliciting requests for qualifications regarding the skills and costs associated with privatizing the management functions of Washington State Ferries. However, Haugen said that’s one part of the bill that she expects Gregoire will veto.

It was an accountability measure that came out of the house, and while Haugen said she’s not adamantly against privatization, she expects there are just too many questions about how it would work for Gregoire to move forward with it at this time.

By law, the governor has 20 days to sign the bill into law.

 

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