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Cut ferry runs, audit says

Riders say idea is loopy

A new state audit says the state can save millions of dollars every year by cutting the number of ferry sailings. The report suggests cutting the first and last ferry runs on the Clinton-Mukilteo route, and that has people who take the 4:40 a.m. boat hopping mad.

Ian Jefferds is co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish in Coupeville. He has three trucks that use the early morning route four times a week.

“The idea for dropping it could only come from someone living in a vacuum in Olympia,” Jefferds said.

“It’s a popular run; lately the boat has been close to or at capacity. It’s a totally irresponsible suggestion,” he said.

Issued by the state auditor, the report details 10 areas for improvement that could save money or improve efficiency throughout the ferry system.

Just one of the 10 findings, however, focuses on ferry routes. It includes the suggestion to cut service throughout the system — mostly for riders on the Seattle-Bainbridge Island and Seattle-Bremerton routes. But the suggestion also includes the elimination of the 4:40 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. runs from Clinton; specifically, the first and last sailings daily except for Saturdays and Sundays in the spring and fall.

The Washington State Department of Transportation operates eight vehicle ferry routes throughout Puget Sound. The boats run from 16 to 22 hours a day and their schedules are driven by several factors: distance between terminals, seasonal traffic volumes, historical precedent, geography (including tide constraints on the Port Townsend-Keystone run), vessel speed, crew schedules and customer demands.

While Washington State Ferries has taken steps to reduce costs, including efforts to save fuel by slowing down vessels as they leave the dock or operating with fewer engines, the ferry system has faced rising costs in recent years.

The system continues to operate at a loss, despite repeated fare increases.

Over the past three years, operational expenses for the ferries system have risen 6.4 percent, in large part due to rising fuel costs.

The price of diesel to run the ferries fleetwide went from $18 million in 2003 to a whopping $39 million last year. The second highest increase was 14.9 percent for finance and administration.

Meantime, fewer people are riding, state officials said.

Between fiscal years 2003 and 2006, ridership declined 1.5 percent throughout Puget Sound, from 24.5 million down to 23.8 million, according to the audit. State ferries officials said the trend won’t continue, however, and traffic volumes are leveling off and expected to rise.

Cutting service is expected to save $9.7 million in the first year if the recommendations are followed.

The Clinton-Mukilteo run represents a potential savings of just $92,000 for labor and fuel, according to Kara Klotz at the Auditor’s office.

Mindy Chambers, spokeswoman for the State Auditor’s Office, said she hopes the report will be folded into the Legislature’s ferry financing study which is currently underway.

“All we’re saying with this performance audit is, if you choose to do this, these are the cost savings,” she said.

“The report does not examine the effects on service to those who ride the ferries.”

Maybe it should, according to state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. Haugen is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, which is conducting the two-year examination of the entire system.

“I was so disgusted when I read about the audit,” she said.

“Don’t they realize these ferries serve the people, that they are part of the state highway system?” Haugen asked.

She added that ferries are the lifeblood for some communities, especially in the San Juans and Island County.

“On Whidbey, there are many who travel to Boeing and other mainland jobs on a daily basis.

“Another thing that bugs me is the attitude of those unaffected by ferries — such as those folks east of the Cascades — who see ferries as a luxury, used only by rich people,” Haugen said. “They easily forget that those who only use roads don’t pay tolls.

“The mentality of those who don’t live and work depending on the ferry is always a problem,” she said.

Haugen said cutting service would be highly controversial.

“I know shutting down service at any time or on any route will not be well received,” she said.

The state Department of Transportation, which commissioned the report, provided 2,000 staff hours and complete access to the auditors during the preparation of the audit.

“It was clear that the majority of savings would come through simply cutting service,” said Lloyd Brown, a Department of Transportation. “But that’s like saying I could save money by not driving my car. I could, but that isn’t a sensible solution.”

Brown said the report’s findings are interesting but must be taken in context.

He added there will be no adjustments in the level of service until lawmakers, ferry advisory boards, transportation officials, ferry workers and riders are consulted.

Cutting out the early morning run could hurt those least able to find alternatives.

Island Transit operations manager Frank VandeWerfhorst reported that each month his drivers track 4,533 riders on the system who take the 3:45 a.m. bus out of Oak Harbor enroute to the 4:40 a.m. ferry in Clinton — including 31 senior citizens and 18 young people.

Jeffords, of Penn Cove Shellfish, said the state should be increasing service, not the other way around.

He noted that tightened security at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport requires his shellfish trucks arrive as early as possible.

“Our products can’t get to their destinations if they cancel the ferry,” he said.

Raul Jefferds, a mussel delivery driver, said riders range from Boeing and construction workers to distributors and others who need to work.

“No one wants to be on that ferry so early, but it’s a necessity for them and for us,” he said.

Crystal White knows exactly how busy it gets each morning. She and fellow barista Mary Jane Daumen start serving coffee at Southern Cross in Clinton by 4:20 a.m.

“We have folks waiting in line for us,” White said on Thursday. “It’s not even eight and we’ve sold over $300 worth of coffee.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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