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New ferry plan flawed, islanders tell state officials

After the Washington State ferry system issued its 105-page long-range plan in mid-December, officials wanted to know what folks thought about it.

They got an earful Tuesday from 125 concerned Whidbey Island residents, all of whom are regular riders on the Clinton-Mukilteo or Keystone-Port Townsend routes.

“We’ve been duped over the years,” said Ed Jenkins. “The ferries aren’t a tourist attraction, but part of the highway system. When we pay the fare, we’re being taxed twice.”

Jenkins was the first of 30 people who stepped up to vent on the state of the ferry system in front of ferry director David Moseley and his planning chief, Ray Deardorf, who authored the report, during a community outreach session at Useless Bay Country Club.

Deardorf summarized the two primary options the state is considering, based on the realities of what Washington State Ferries is facing: not enough money, an aging fleet, increased overall ridership and worn-out terminals.

“There is no dedicated capital funding stream,” Deardorf said. “We must maximize existing capacity and apply specific management strategies while delivering the highest possible service.”

In the first option, the state maintains its current role as owner, operator and principal funder of ferry services in the Puget Sound region, with a budgetary shortfall of roughly $3.5 billion.

Deardorf explained the state’s dilemma.

“The fleet’s average age is 34 years, there’s a long lead time to buy capital equipment, there are severe capacity constraints at peak periods and we predict a 40-percent increase in ridership over the next 20 years,” he said.

Plan B proposes an alternative where the state takes responsibility for the core marine highway system while a locally-funded entity would take on a new marine transit system. The budget shortfall for the state is lower than Plan A, but still significant at $1.3 billion.

An example would be new marine transit passenger ferry service operated by locally-funded governments, such as the county or the Port of South Whidbey. Port districts might also be tasked with operating terminals; South Whidbey at Clinton, Coupeville at Keystone.

But even that won’t be enough to solve the problem, and Deardorf recommended ferry users tighten their seat belts for the bumpy, and more expensive, ride ahead.

“Over time we will increase passenger fares at half the rate of those with cars,” he said. “If the price rises 2.8 percent for cars, it will be 1.4 percent for walk-ons as we try to increase that portion of our business. There will most likely be an automatic fuel surcharge reflecting spikes in the price of diesel.”

Ferry officials insist that a reservation system — implemented on different routes at peak periods — would solve a lot of the problem.

“It provides customers the certainty that they will get on, removes the need for larger terminals and improves the transit flow on both ends,” Deardorf said. Though reservations would be free, he didn’t rule out a non-refundable deposit might be needed as the kinks are worked out. He provided no details on how the reservation plan might work.

Plan B calls for a reduction in the number of ferries overall, from 22 to 17, and the cuts will be felt on every route.

The Clinton-Mukilteo run would be served by two 124-car ferries with no extra service in the summer. The Keystone-Port Townsend route would have a single 64-car dedicated ferry, with no back-up.

The meeting was then opened for public comment, with a stenographer on duty to record what was said, to be published on the WSF Web site at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.

Dave Hoogerwerf from Maxwelton noted he’d been to a lot of meetings over the years, but little has changed.

“You have made some fundamentally flawed assumptions,” he said. “People have made serious financial and life commitments based on the good service you provide, but now you’re saying the ferries are the stepchild and you want us to take them over.”

He noted that he doesn’t use the Tacoma Narrows bridge and doesn’t travel on I-5 over the Cascades when it snows, but his taxes are used to maintain those areas.

“Both of those are part of the state highway system, and so are the ferries,” he added. “Either you can run them more efficiently, or you can’t. You’re saying someone is going have to make up the difference, and that ‘someone’ is us?”

Hoogerwerf said Plan B may be better for the state but not for those who rely on the ferries.

Langley businesswoman Kimberly Tiller was concerned about the impacts from higher fares and less service on the economy.

“It is simply unfair that we have to pay for the ferry beyond the taxes we pay,” she said.

Some folks offered concrete suggestions.

Whidbey Sea-Tac Shuttle owner Mike Lauver recommended cars go on first and leave first, unless overhead passenger-loading facilities are built.

“Holding up the boats for foot passengers slows the whole process,” he said.

Freeland’s Dean Enell said the ferries can put 180 Toyotas on board versus 130 Dodge Rams, and said the state should charge drivers accordingly.

“It wouldn’t hurt to stop cars idling while they wait in line and provide better incentives for people bicycling or taking the bus,” he said. “The mission should focus on moving people across the water, not cars.”

Several speakers said the state needs to look to the nation’s capital for help.

“Hopefully, you can go to the federal trough and take the first drink when the new administration takes over,” said Bill O’Brien.

And Bob Walters added that ferry planners need to have shovel-ready projects on the table to be eligible for the new administration’s economic recovery plan.

Freeland business owner Richard Soto said that people need a ferry system folks can count on.

“Many businesses depend on ferries to get goods and customers here,” Soto said. “Please look at the dollars that could be lost if you cut access; things will go downhill rapidly here otherwise.”

Barbara Lindahl from Langley has experienced the reservation system in Canada.

“Reservations could lead to chaos,” she said. “I’ve seen it happen.”

When Lindahl asked about a second ferry for the Keystone route, Deardorf silently smiled and shook his head. Under Plan B, there isn’t one.

Roughly a third of those present were from central Whidbey. Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard missed the previous night’s ferry meeting in Port Townsend when the passenger-only service was disrupted by a storm.

“We must have a predictable situation for the Keystone-Port Townsend run, and that includes having a second Island Home ferry assigned,” she said.

Conard added that the reservation system worked last summer at Keystone, but would have to be modified depending on each ferry route’s capacity and demand.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson echoed Conard.

“The two most critical needs are reliability and predictability, especially on the Keystone-Port Townsend route, which is now decimated by your Plan B,” she said.

Price Johnson added that whichever option is chosen, a second ferry is an absolute necessity, noting the cancellation of the previous night’s service.

Thursday, Price Johnson said she was surprised more attention wasn’t paid, by either side, to the unions.

“When I was on the school board, we worked closely with union members to try and find ways to ease financial problems,” she said. “Those discussions are happening today in the auto industry, but I haven’t heard much about that from the ferry people.”

She said it was very positive that so many people took the time to show up and be counted.

“The decision will be made by the state Legislature and it’s good to have these comments on the record,” she said.

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