Interisland ferry meeting draws informed crowd

tRosenfeld, Distler and Sutton report

Washington State Ferries (WSF) management team met with their San Juan county customers aboard the ferry Evergreen State on Monday, Oct. 6 to discuss developing plans to address challenges to provide affordable, dependable ferry service in the years ahead.

The Evergreen State departed Friday Harbor and circumnavigated Shaw Island during which time about 50 islanders participated in the meeting. David Moseley, head of WSF, commented that he was very pleased with the attendance and appreciated the questions posed by everyone. Officials mentioned that attendance at the San Juan meeting was higher then that at most other meetings around the Sound.

However, Moseley’s absence was soon noted, as he was in the pilot house dealing with the emergency situation “Down Sound” when the Walla Walla broke down on its Kingston-Edmonds run and a boat had to be “borrowed” from the Seattle-Bremerton run. County Council member, and Ferry Advisory Committee Liaison, Howie Rosenfeld commented, “That’s [the ferry system’s] busiest run and there’s no back-up boat. We lucked out up here; when we lost a boat, we had a back-up and we didn’t lose service.”

According to San Juans’ FAC Chair Ed Sutton, the WSF management team presented the current recommendations on the long-range plan as it was specific to the San Juan route. The three key elements to that report were reservations, pricing strategies, and public transit enhancements. Responding to a question from the FAC on the reservation element, the WSF team commented that a reservation program in the San Juan Islands would not likely be implemented for three to five years, provided that such is approved by the Transportation Commission.

Sutton reported that the possibilities of different pricing strategies is more imminent as the State and WSF are facing serious budget issues that will place additional pressure on the Legislature to increase revenues. During the coming Legislative session, it is expected that legislators will remove the freeze on ferry fares and make significant changes to the tariff discounts and allow time-of-day pricing.

Rosenfeld said, “I think the meeting worked very well; I wanted the public to be able to talk to WSF, rather than being talked to, as they did last time. They still made a presentation but this time there was time for questions. Unfortunately I didn’t get to stay to hear the Orcas and Lopez crowd, as we pulled into Friday Harbor, but the San Juan and Orcas people had a lot of questions.”

According to Rosenfeld, some of the comments concerned:

• the gap in ferry runs to and from Friday Harbor

• the changing ferry schedule affecting the schedules’ of transit agencies; interconnectivity should work better

• tourists’ difficulty reading the schedule

• tourists’ fears of riding the boats

• low-cost or free parking in Anacortes

• lower fares for locals

• overloads on the interisland ferry causing local contractors costly delays

• passenger-only ferries

• reservations system implementation: FAC suggested starting out with reservations on Sundays in summertime

• the need for round-trip reservations

• the freeze in fares that is good until October of 2009, and if the system will lose riders if the fares increase, the effect on the bottom line.

Bob Distler, a member of the State Transportation Commission and an Orcas Island resident, commented after the meeting “My biggest surprise was the level of attendance; there were more people than at the Bainbridge Island meeting. Folks came on at each island, and there were two and a half presentations [on the complete circuit], so it was a good conversation.

“It was a big commitment of their time and I credit Ed Sutton for the idea. It’s hard to get people to turn out in the middle of a weekday, but the ferry schedule doesn’t allow for night meetings.”

At the Oct. 6 meeting, Distler quickly covered the results of the ridership survey and discussed the alternative of the Transportation Commission’s finance study, focusing in on the potential for local funding sources, such as state-wide taxes, a renewal of the motor vehicle excise tax, formation of a taxing ferry district, and changes in fares.

“There’s been mistrust of the numbers in the last WSF long-range plan,” said Distler. Ridership reaction to changes in fares and in the level of service aboard the ferries has been built in to the survey, he said.

He estimates the ferry system’s budget at “roughly $200 million a year.” With the loss of the motor vehicle excise tax, delayed replacement of capital projects and the rising cost of fuel, there is no easy solution, Distler maintains.

“Statewide, counties large and small are in trouble with their roads, and transit districts are in bad shape because of fuel-cost increases,” Distler said.

During the question-and-answer period, Distler says he “was impressed by the level of understanding, the quality and thoughtfulness of the questions.” Over the series of nine meetings, he estimates that 230 people out of the systems’ 250,000 customers have attended, and “they recognize that something’s going to have to give if we keep up with demand.

“If we freeze right where we are, then the problem is even larger.”

Distler says the Transportation Commission is working closely with WSF and the legislative groups. “The target is to have something ready for the 2009 legislative session; a draft plan as early as this November.”

Rosenfeld is scheduled to have a meeting with Ferries Division Secretary Moseley next week, and plans to attend the Ferry Community Partnership (FCP) meeting next Saturday on Bainbridge Island. The FCP is “a loose organization that has been very effective,” Rosenfeld said, adding that the County Council is “trying to cover all the bases, and whatever is going on, we want to be a part of it, because it’s very easy for them to forget about us.”

The results of this series of public outreach meetings will now be summarized for the Transportation Commission, and final recommendations from that group are anticipated in November, Sutton said. Then one last round of public comment will occur before the WSF Long-Range Plan will be submitted to the Legislature.

“The members of the San Juan FAC and the County Council are staying closely attuned to the development of these recommendations and will be attending additional meetings down-sound later this week with other community representatives to craft responses to the Commission report when it is published,” said Sutton.

Rosenfeld holds a dim prospect for the ferry situation to improve. “On a discouraging note, the fact that the economy has gone to hell is going to make everything worse. All the priorities will make it harder to do anything. Just be grateful there is a boat.”

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