Opposition grows over ferry plan

For some South Enders, the state ferry system’s Plan B can’t disappear beneath the waves fast enough.

“Why are we being singled out as ferry riders to pay for the system?” asked Paulette Becker, Island County Democratic State Committeewoman.

“Why can’t the state spread the cost around for all Washingtonians. Why pick on Whidbey?”

At a community outreach attended by 125 people last week in Freeland, ferry planning director Ray Deardorf outlined the two options the state is considering to solve the long-range financial damage expected if the ferry system doesn’t adopt a different tack.

A combination of increasing ridership, tight finances, aging vessels and outdated terminals is forcing state officials to seek strategies to pay for capital improvements to keep the system running smoothly over the next 20 years.

The first plan sees the state maintaining 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.

Put simply, the state has no money to continue business as usual, Deardorf explained.

He said 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 they predict a

40-percent increase in ridership over the next 20 years. And there is no dedicated revenue stream to pay for major upgrades.

Plan B will cost less, but still produce a $1.3 billion shortfall. It proposes an alternative where the state takes responsibility for the core marine highway system while a locally-funded entity — a ferry taxing district or the Port of South Whidbey, perhaps — would take over responsibility for sections of the marine transit system.

Ferry fares haven’t been keeping the system afloat since the state bought the ferries for $5 million from privately-owned Black Ball Express in the early 1950s. Ferry operations are 70 percent subsidized by those who ride the vessels.

Even so, the cost of taking a ferry has increased between 37 and 122 percent over the last eight years.

Local ferry users are feeling squeezed.

“It isn’t our fault this happened,” Becker said. “But we are being penalized, singled out because we made the decision to live here. Most people I know aren’t wealthy and a 60-cent increase will hurt them and lots of others.”

The draft report proposes a variety of ways for the state ferry system to close its budget gap, such as requiring reservations to board, fuel surcharges when diesel prices spike, commuter and small car discounts and increasing specific fares for both passengers and vehicles.

The system already has a seasonal 25 percent surcharge — 35 percent in the San Juans — that targets riders during peak times, mainly the summer tourist season.

Since ridership fluctuates significantly between winter and summer sailings, ferry officials are considering a reservation program to guarantee a spot on board during the busy season.

“Potentially, it’s a huge disaster,” Becker said. “What I’m afraid of is that once they buy the computers and set up this cumbersome reservation system, they’ll quickly discover it does not work and we’ll be stuck for that as well.”

Becker noted that reservations will produce a flood of complaints and discriminate against ferry riders who have no cell telephones, no internet service and no credit cards.

“And it will add an expensive extra layer in the WSF bureaucracy,” she said.

Plan B would also lead to service cuts on the Clinton-Mukilteo route during the summer.

Criticism has extended beyond the plan itself since last week’s meeting. Some in the crowd have condemned State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, the 10th District lawmaker who serves the area and runs the powerful Senate Transportation Committee, for not attending the meeting to hear the public’s concerns.

A legislative joint transport committee meeting in Olympia prevented Haugen from attending the Freeland gathering, a spokesman said.

Haugen has previously indicated support for Plan B, saying the state can’t afford the first alternative.

In a memo sent out this week, Haugen said that, although they are facing revenue problems, Washington State Ferries is still an indispensable part of the state highway system.

“The ferries move as many passengers every year as Sea-Tac Airport and each route in the WSF network is a crucial lifeline to the communities that they serve,” she said.

Meanwhile, Becker has written to state transportation secretary Paula Hammond, but intends to go higher. This weekend she will attend a governor’s reception celebrating the inauguration.

“No promises, but if I can, I will tell Gov. Gregoire about the damage I believe this plan will mean to Whidbey Island,” she said.

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