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Lawmakers split on ferry reservations for South End

Two of three District 10 lawmakers say they are opposed to a reservation system for riders on the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry route.

But one — and the most influential voice in the debate — is taking a wait-and-see approach.

During a Record poll of local lawmakers, State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen said she wasn’t ready to scuttle the idea for a reservation system on the Clinton run.

“People say ‘Never, never, never.’ I’m not going to say yes or no,” said Haugen, a Camano Island Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Transportation Committee.

Haugen said the reservation system would be tested via a “pilot project” on a ferry route elsewhere, and the idea would have to prove itself before being started on South Whidbey.

“It will not happen on South Whidbey unless there is a clear benefit to the people,” Haugen said. “Until they can clearly show me and show the people in my district its benefits, it’s not going to happen.”

Washington State Ferries has proposed creating a reservation system as part of its new long-range plan. But the idea has drawn near universal condemnation from South Whidbey residents and business owners, who fear reservations will be a hassle for commuters and scare away the tourists that are the lifeblood of the South End economy.

At a recent meeting in Langley, residents presented David Moseley, director of the state ferry system, with a petition signed by more than 500 islanders who oppose the plan for reservations. And Saturday, at a town hall meeting hosted by Haugen in Coupeville, a handful of people in the packed house wore signs declaring, “More ferries — No reservations” around their necks.

While Haugen is noncommittal on a reservation system for South End ferries, her fellow District 10 lawmakers are not.

“I’m against them, but it isn’t that simple,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton. “First, I don’t want the ferries to spend money on a reservation system that may prove to be unworkable.

“But I need to be careful. Recently, the Navy gave a review of their needs. Ferries are a critical link to naval stations around the Sound, especially from the peninsula to Whidbey Island on the Keystone run. That isn’t simply a tourist boat, it’s vital to the Navy and commerce as well.”

“I do not favor a reservation system on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry run,” said Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

“[Washington] State Ferries appear to want to institute a statewide reservation system to control usage. I believe that we need to be encouraging usage of our ferry system, not limiting usage,” Bailey said.

That said, Bailey said reservations may be appropriate on ferry routes beyond South Whidbey.

“A reservation system that would encourage usage on some runs in our system could be valuable. But in its present form, and what Washington State Ferries has proposed to do with a reservation system, it would further injure our usage and demand for usage.”

“It is a deterrent rather than a helpful system,” Bailey said.

State planners have pointed to reservations as a vital piece of the plan that would solve the problems facing Washington state’s ferry system, which include a $3.3 billion deficit over the next 22 years, an aging fleet, increased ridership and worn-out terminals.

Reservations have been proposed for travelers during peak travel periods, and planners have said 90 percent of ferry capacity during those sailings may be set aside for reservations.

State ferry planners have said the Clinton-Mukilteo route would be next in the “logical progression” of expanding the reservation system.

Ferry officials have considered what the basics of the system would need, and the cost for creating a system has ranged from $28 million to $45 million. Riders would need to pay for reservations in advance, and previous studies on the idea have suggested the installation of an automatic verification system that would read license- plate numbers with cameras to check if drivers in ferry queues have reservations.

The automatic system could lead to savings because toll-booth workers would no longer be needed.

For drivers showing up for a ferry without reservations, the state has considered imposing an additional premium fee, “in order to strongly encourage riders to make a reservation.”

Moseley, director of the state ferry system, has said the reservation system must first be approved by the Legislature. Then, a pre-design route-specific study would be completed before the reservation system is applied route-by-route.

“Nothing is a done deal,” said Haugen. She said the ferry system could make plans for a reservation system, but it wouldn’t happen without the Legislature’s blessing.

“They can’t do anything unless they are given money,” she said.

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