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Regional ferry district proposal dead in the water

Governor Chris Gregoire's regional ferry district proposal has been set adrift in the sea of dead legislation.

Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, (D-Camano Island), who is also chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, will not be giving the proposal a hearing, which means it cannot move through the legislature.

In early January, Gov. Gregoire announced her plan to transfer control of the state ferry system to a new Puget Sound regional ferry district, which would be able to tax residents in ferry-served Western Washington counties. The Puget Sound Regional Ferry District would be funded by fares, a state subsidy, and a regional taxing authority.

The proposal was met with scorn from several senators: Jim Hargrove, (D-Hoquiam), Derek Kilmer, (D-Gig Harbor), Tim Sheldon, (D-Potlatch), and Kevin Ranker, (D-San Juan Island). Ranker says he is working on a number of alternative proposals.

"Something needs to happen," he said. "We need to step us as a state and fix our ferry system."

Washington State Ferries (WSF) lost 20 percent of its operating support and 75 percent of its dedicated capital funding when voters approved Initiative 695 in 1999 and the Legislature enacted the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax reductions during the 2000 legislative session. WSF has a projected 10-year, $900 million operating and capital deficit.

Ranker has been meeting with Gov. Gregoire and Rep. Jeff Morris about possible solutions.

"Our goal is two-fold: service and operations," Ranker said. "But more importantly, we're looking at capital. I am trying as hard as I can to develop a way to build a 144-ferry for the San Juan Islands ... we are exploring a number of ideas. Obviously, that is a very diffcult thing to pull off, but we are working very hard."

On Jan. 24, a package of reforms was introduced by Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.

"It's no secret that the ferry system isn’t run as efficiently as it should be and needs to be," Haugen said in a press release. "Right now we have very different standards for ferry employees compared to other state employees. This brings ferry employees in line with everyone else and eliminates wasteful practices."

Among other things, the bills prohibit bargaining agreements from being more generous to ferry workers than to other public employees when it comes to annual leave accrual, types of leave, compensated holidays, travel time for commuting, meal compensation and other areas. In particular, the bills limit overtime to the workplace norm of time-and-a-half. The bills give managers more tools for managing performance, which in turn will make them more accountable for day-to-day ferry performance. The bills further save $235,000 annually by abolishing the state Marine Employees Commission and moving employees under the Public Employee Relations Commission that oversees all other state employees.

“In my many years as a legislator, I’ve battled the bureaucracy at Washington State Ferries," said Rep. Morris, sponsor of a bill in the package that could lead to some management positions being privatized. "Time and again, the higher-ups at WSF dragged their feet or failed to recognize ways it could streamline its operations and services. My proposal affects only certain management-level positions at WSF if they aren't able to meet certain performance measures. The old management style isn’t working, so it’s time to try something new.”

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