Whidbey needs to speak out on ferries

Now that the state has published its latest long-range ferry planning report, it’s time for lawmakers to weigh in and make some decisions.

It’s not going to be easy for those who serve on the ferry policy subcommittee of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee.

Rep. Norma Smith (R-Clinton) said she’s meeting every week with fellow legislators in Olympia.

“We’re looking at strategies to address the key areas of concern that we have,” she said.

There are many of those, Smith added, especially the status of funds allocated in 2003 for the construction of new vessels.

“Where’s all the money gone?” Smith said.

Smith and other elected officials are concerned that operating expenses continue to spike but the state is operating the same number of routes. While labor and fuel costs have climbed, those increases don’t fully account for the growth in the expense budget.

“We have to manage this system more efficiently,” she said.

Some have also questioned past decisions on the part of state transportation officials, who have focused more on constructing new ferry terminals rather than building boats.

That focus has driven ferry planners to come up with a proposed reservations system designed to reduce the need for large terminals.

When the system is fully functional, the idea is that if drivers on a particular sailing have a reservation and are parked in a “virtual queue,” extra waiting lanes won’t be needed and the capital budget for big, expansive terminals can be pared down or eliminated.

In theory, anyway.

Smith said one of the big surprises in the plan was the cost of the proposed reservation system for ferry riders. She recalled how the system at Keystone cost $300,000. The draft plan said a system-wide reservation system would cost $45 million.

“When they brought up that issue, I was stunned at what it was going to cost,” she said.

A reservation system may have its merits. “But not if we are looking at those kinds of dollars. We have to invest in vessels first,” she said.

“I don’t disagree that a reservation system can help us manage demand,” she added. “But at the end of the day, it has to be about customer service. It has to be about how can we deliver a better service to our consumers, our bosses. It’s the taxpayers who are paying the bill for this. That’s what this has to be about.”

Rep. Christine Rolfes’ (D-Bainbridge) 23rd Legislative District includes Bainbridge Island and Kingston.

She believes the reservations system might be workable in some situations, such as tourist-heavy routes in the San Juans and Keystone-Port Townsend.

“But it won’t work on commuter routes like you have in Clinton,” she said.

“What all of us need to do is work together as a team for the entire system, not put the needs of our own districts first,” Rolfes added.

Rolfes said that, while Whidbey Island lawmakers were working hard on the issues involved, she hasn’t heard much from residents, those most affected by any ferry changes.

“There needs to be a voice down here, and we haven’t seen it,” she said. “We get citizen groups from the San Juans, even big rallies, but nobody from your island. The voices so far haven’t been equal.”

Smith said some of the criticism directed at the state during the recent rollout of the draft long-range plan — such as the charge that the state has given short shrift to ferry routes when compared to other state highways — was right on target.

“I absolutely agree. We are continually reminding people here that these are marine highways. They are part of the state highway system,” Smith said.

The ferry routes are critical infrastructure; important to residents, commerce and the military.

“These are marine highways that need to have the same attention as the rest of the state highway system,” she said.

People were right, as well, about Scenario B in the draft plan, a proposed rollback in ferry routes that included the suggestion that local governments could take over some routes.

“It’s just bad,” Smith said. “What are we doing talking about reducing service?”

Rolfes said the governor’s budget favoring Scenario B was the wrong move.

“We need to take ‘B’ off the table,” she said. “Plan A is the baseline for our discussions but the funding challenge will be a serious hurdle.”

Rolfes was a co-sponsor of the bill allowing ferries to be contracted and built out of the state, saving potentially millions of dollars.

“No one in Olympia wants to do that, including me, because of the loss of jobs,” she said. “But when you have a cash-strapped transport system, you’ve got to introduce some competition to the bidding. That discussion continues.”

She said the impetus behind the bill was to get federal transportation dollars. “There’s no money available for laws with protectionist language,” Rolfes added.

Both agreed there are a lot of issues beyond the ferries that they will be dealing with this session.

“There are just a myriad of concerns,” Smith said.

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