Ferry cuts will keep high fuel costs in line

"Looking for a bright side in the pending service cuts by Washington State Ferries?Well, at least they'll save money on fuel.As crude oil prices have skyrocketed from $10 a barrel in 1998 to $30 today, every automobile owner has noticed the increasing price of fuel at the gasoline pump.State Ferries budget watchers have seen the same thing when they buy diesel.Unlike car owners, who pay another dollar or two with each 12 to 15 gallon fill-up, ferries feel the pinch in a big way.The larger ferries carry up to 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and the entire system goes through 22 million gallons a year.It's amazing how much we burn, said Bill Green, budget director of Washington State Ferries.The ferry fuel budget for the 1999-2001 biennium is $27 million.Green crunched a few numbers this week and concluded that diesel today is costing about 15 cents per gallon more than ferry officials budgeted in the spring of 1999. They expected to be paying 62 cents a gallon, but instead prices vary from 75 to 82 cents per gallon. If that still seems cheap, it's because they don't pay state fuel taxes.But no fuel budget crisis is imminent, according to Green, even though the fuel budget will have been overspent by about 10 percent at the end of the first fiscal year on July 1.For one thing, prices last year were lower than expected and money saved then can be used now. More significantly, the ferry system soon won't be using as much fuel.Beginning this summer, plans are to eliminate passenger-only ferries entirely, tie up several older auto ferries, and cut back service on all other routes. This is in reaction to Initiative 695, which eliminated more than 20 percent of the ferry system's operating budget.We believe with the service cuts proposed, they'll offset the higher fuel prices, Green said. By the end of fiscal year two, with the service cuts, it'll be about a wash."

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