Public shoots down Plan B during WSF meeting

With a first-rate view of the San Juans passing by the ferry windows, around 75 islanders gathered aboard the inter-island boat on Jan. 15 to give public testimony regarding the two proposed options for future ferry service. San Juan and Lopez were well represented, while fewer came from Orcas and Shaw than was anticipated.

Ferries Division Assistant Secretary David Moseley and Planning Director Ray Deardorf led the meeting.

Moseley identified the key problem of the ferries: “Our expenses exceed dedicated tax revenues and the money from fares. It is exclusively a capital problem.”

Washington State Ferries is facing an increased demand for service as ferry-served communities continue to grow, yet is held back by a tight budget, limited vehicle carrying capacities, and aging terminals and vessels.

The overwhelming sentiment of the afternoon was that it is the state’s responsibility to meet the capital funding deficit.

Richard Ward of Lopez Island said, “The problem is not with those in this room or with the Department of Transportation. It is with with the politicians who don’t ride the ferries and don’t care. We’re putting billions of dollars into a tunnel in Seattle and we keep up the mountain passes. There is a misconception in Olympia that we’re rich up here. We’re not.”

The goal of the long range plan is to alleviate the funding problems. The draft outlines two options.

Plan A would continue the current level of service and eventually “upsize” certain routes while creating $3.5 billion worth of debt by 2030.

Plan B calls for reducing the fleet and cutting back routes, including eliminating the Anacortes to Sidney route. It will leave the agency $1.4 billion in the red.

Both plans call for a fare increase of two and a half percent, a fuel surcharge for when gas prices rise, and a reservation system to be phased into all the ferry terminals over a period of 10 years.

It was unanimously voiced at the meeting that Plan B is simply not a viable option. Two days before the Jan. 15 meeting, the San Juan County Council and the Ferry Advisory Committee endorsed a response to WSF that called Plan B “an unrealistic representation of state ferry service.”

Council member Lovel Pratt, District 1 – San Juan, read some of the council’s letter, emphasizing that San Juan County “is a totally ferry-dependent community.” She also spoke as an individual, saying that the ferries are “not adequately funded by the state.” She noted that Washington law requires that “Washington State ferries be built in Washington state. With that law we cannot use federal funds to build new ferries. Right now we are missing a tremendous opportunity to utilize federal stimulus funds to pay for much needed new ferry construction.”

Ken Rose, who owns Ken Rose Trucking on Lopez and spends several days a week on both the inter-island and the Anacortes-bound ferry, said, “We’re not getting our share from the state, especially when you consider how much we’ve spent on keeping the mountain passes clear lately. It’s important to maintain the passes, but we’re getting short-changed.”

Several people commented on the importance of the inter-island ferry, particularly for those who commute to work. The crowd also supported keeping the Sydney run in the summer months.

Patricia McKay, the San Juan Island FAC representative, noted that “no economic study has been done to see how raising the fares will affect every loaf of bread and every can of vegetables that a family has to buy.”

There was also some concern about the reservation system, so Moseley explained it in more depth. Its goal is to reduce the back-up of cars waiting to buy tickets. It will cost 12 million to implement, which will cost less than creating larger holding areas in terminals. WSF conducted a study on ferry reservation systems and found that almost every major ferry system in the world either has a reservation system or is in the process of introducing one.

It may start out with reservations for 50 percent of the boat’s capacity, and if it is well received, that number will increase. But Moseley says the boats will never be 100 percent reserved. The Sydney run and the Port Townsend route currently have this system in place. Moseley says that Port Townsend riders have given good feedback as well as information on areas that need improvement.

One of the last comments of the meeting came from Council Member Bob Myhr, District 6 – Lopez/Shaw.

“We need to think of ourselves as a team. We all want a good ferry system to meet our vital transportation needs. Moreover, the ferry system is one of the symbols of our state. We should look at the leaders of our system not as adversaries but as friends.”

Washington State Ferries will provide a final plan to the State Legislature on Jan. 31. Copies of the draft plan can be viewed online at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/planning/ESHB2358, the library, or by calling 206-515-3411. To comment on the plan e-mail wsfplanning@wsdot.wa.gov or write to Washington State Ferries, Attn. Joy Goldenberg, 2901 3rd Ave., Seattle, WA 98121.