Cuts dominate topics at ferry meeting on I-695

"There was enough talk of cutting and slashing to make an unsuspecting visitor think the plot for Halloween XXII was being discussed. However, it was just another ferry meeting in the aftermath of voter approval of I-695.More than 50 people gathered Monday night in Freeland to hear Washington State Ferry officials explain once again how they will deal with the huge monetary loss caused by the $30 license tab initiative, which eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax. It cuts the ferry system’s operating budget by over 20 percent, and in time effectively eliminates its capital budget for new boats, maintenance and dock improvements.Here’s a rundown of some of the discussion points, mainly led by Terry McCarty, deputy director of Washington State Ferries.*Engineers are now looking at how to “button down phase one” of the Clinton dock reconstruction project, now in progress. There won’t be a phase two, barring a new revenue source. “The next phase of Clinton is a $20 million obligation and we’ve got zero,” McCarthy said.*Forget about a new Mukilteo dock and adding a third ferry to the busy route. State Ferries will be lucky if it can shore up the existing dock as “bore worms” continue to dine on the pilings.“There is some good news,” deadpanned Connie Niva, a member of the state Transportation Commission. “At least bore worms are not yet an endangered species.”*The ferry system has already proposed widely-reported service and staff cuts to the Legislature, and plans are to give it $30 million from the highway fund. If adopted, these measures will allow the system to function through this biennium, which ends June 30, 2001. After that, McCarthy said, “We fall off a cliff.”* Raising ferry fares isn’t an easy solution to the revenue shortage. The limit due to an old initiative -- 601 -- is 2.9 percent without legislative authority to exceed that amount. And now I-695 requires a vote on all fee hikes. Niva said the Transportation Commission will ask legislators for permission to go to the voters on its own. “Make it possible for us to make our own decisions,” she said, summarizing the forthcoming approach to the legislature.McCarty added that raising fares too much can drive away customers, so any increases will have to be incremental.*McCarty was quite animated at the meeting, perhaps because he’s sat through similar post-695 meetings in other areas served by the ferries. Bremerton area customers are outraged that plans are to tie up all five passenger-only ferries, because fares pay so little of their cost. “We’re getting hammered on the passenger only thing,” he said. “But the revenue loss is pretty minimal.”* Audience members Jim Hawley and Robert Turner said ferry union workers should share some of the financial pain by giving up such things as getting paid to get to a job. “I’m talking eight hours’ work for eight hours’ pay,” Turner said. But McCarthy described a complex relationship with the union which was set up to avoid strikes. “There’s no silver bullet where we’re going to run the world as we jolly well please,” he said.* Get in the ferry business!” That’s McCarthy’s advice to any community that resents service cutbacks. “Washington State Ferries will not resist that opportunity,” he said. That’s an new approach, since in the past the ferry system has protected its routes from competition.Such local action to save ferries may not be far-fetched, according to Niva. There will be a lot of talk in the Legislature about ferry users, whom detractors describe as “a bunch of people who choose to live on an island and have other people pay for it.” While she disagrees with that, she said, “You’ll have to endure that discussion; all the options should be on the table.”* State Rep. Dave Anderson held out little hope that the Legislature will bail out the ferry system. “The big issue is whether we open the general fund,” he said. “If we don’t touch education, we’ll have to cut all other programs by 24.3 percent. We’ve got quite a job to do. The rest of the state isn’t going to spend that money on ferries.” Public health and safety will be the top priorities, he said.McCarthy said Gov. Gary Locke’s office is due to release its own transportation spending proposal sometime next week. The Legislature convenes in January."

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