WSF ferry rate increases on hold till corruption allegations are investigated
By COLLEEN ARMSTRONG
Islands Sounder Publisher, Editor
June 7, 2010 · Updated 12:24 PM
Until the mess is sorted out, Washington State Ferries won't be seeing an increase in its fares.
On May 18, the state transportation commission unanimously voted to delay further consideration of ferry fare adjustments until ferry operational reviews are completed.
Washington State Ferries (WSF) is fielding allegations by KING 5 investigators who say engineers padded their paychecks through working unnecessary overtime.
"We felt that while things are up in the air it's unreasonable to ask the public for an increase," said transportation commissioner Bob Distler. "The reviews need to be done and the legislators need to consider them. In my view, which is shared by my colleagues, until we hear back from the legislators, I don't think we want to move. This is still an unfolding issue. It's a big issue. A part of the issue that hasn't been fully addressed is the day-to-day overtime situation that may be having a larger impact than these individuals."
In a May 19 letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire, the transportation commission wrote it "supports our state ferry system and understands the vital role it plays in our state's transportation network. But the ferry system faces an unsustainable future if long-term funding is not secured, thus making it of the upmost importance that WSF be operated in the most efficient and transparent manner if we are to ensure widespread public support moving forward."
The motion passed by the commission states that it will: "...defer consideration of ferry tariff adjustment until the various reviews and investigations being conducted, including the state auditor's office and the passenger vehicle association reviews, are completed and the results are reported and considered by legislators."
WSF Assistant Secretary David Moseley told the Sounder that ferry staff is meeting with the commission in June to present "the efforts WSF is making to reduce costs and proactively manage the system."
When asked what WSF is doing about the allegations, Moseley said, "It was clear when I started that the ferry system was in need of reform and this is not a change that happens overnight."
He says the organization is in the process of eliminating vacation overlap pay, improving control of overtime use, and implementing a new "red flag" report for employees showing extra pay. Other cost-saving measures include reducing administration, consulting, and fuel costs, changing terminal maintenance plans, improving vessel construction, and eliminating travel time and mileage for special project staff. WSF is also filling its vacant deputy director position with someone who has maritime experience.
"This person will manage day-to-day operations of the ferry system, and oversee implementation of ferry employee contracts while ensuring management/union/employee relationships continue with respect," Moseley said. "WSF is currently working with the State Auditor’s Office to review payroll improvements made to date, and seek to identify further improvements in our ferries payroll and data system. We have convened an independent five-member panel of public and private passenger-vessel industry leaders to review and assess the implementation of previous ferry audits and studies, assess ferries division operations and practices compared to other ferry systems, and recommend any best-practice changes. The panel has met once and has another meeting scheduled for June. A report will be issued in August. We are hopeful that the commission will take action on a fare proposal at their July meeting. A fare increase of 2.5 percent is assumed in the WSF budget."
Distler estimates that the commission will revisit a fare increase in the late fall or winter, but says the larger issue is capital funding.
"The real elephant in the room is the capital funding, which is not impacted by fares," he said. "The long range ferry plan that was finished last year has a capital shortfall of half a million dollars a day for the next 22 years. The longer we look at these operational issues, the longer it will take legislators to turn their focus on the big issue: the capital side."
Distler said he and his colleagues were surprised to hear of the allegations.
"My reaction was, if this stuff is going on, why aren't there management reporting policies and alarms going off to catch these things?" he said. "How could this go on without anyone noticing it? In a properly run organization, it would have been known long ago."Contact Islands Sounder Publisher, Editor Colleen Armstrong at email@example.com or 1-360-376-4500.