Washington State Ferries releases draft long-range plan

▼ Reduction in service levels and delays in buying new ferries expected

It’s a tough time to be in the ferry business.

Facing an increased demand for service as ferry-served communities continue to grow, yet held back by a tight budget, limited vehicle carrying capacities, and aging terminals and vessels, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Ferries Division (WSF) released its draft long-range plan for services and investments through 2030.

The proposal puts forth two options.

Plan A assumes the state will continue in its current role as owner, operator, and principal funder of ferry services in the Puget Sound region. The current level of service remains with operational strategies implemented over time and several new vessels coming online. This plan contains a significant budget shortfall that will require new revenues.

Plan B recognizes that the state may not be able to provide new revenues to meet the evolving needs of all ferry customers and communities, and looks at marine transportation very differently. It proposes an alternative where the state takes responsibility for the core marine highway system and a locally funded entity or entities would take responsibility for a new marine transit system. This option also assumes that operational strategies would be implemented over time. It contains a budget shortfall, but it is significantly smaller than Plan A.

The FAC Council had a two-hour conference call with David Moseley, Ferries Division Assistant Secretary, and his staff on Tuesday, Dec. 23. According to Ed Sutton, chair of the FAC for San Juan County, Moseley said that both Plans A and B are essentially balanced as far as operational budgets are concerned. “Plan A is the status quo and B is the draconian alternative,” said Sutton.

During the discussion, Sutton asked if the two plans were a black and white choice or if perhaps there could be a B+ plan. Mosely said yes, although a B- plan was also possible.

“The critical element is the capital investment necessary to maintain the fleet, replace aging boats, and preserve the current level of service,” said Sutton. “It is these numbers that are so troublesome and which result in Plan B showing a dramatic delay in construction of new ferries, other than the smaller design, which would replace larger boats that can then be used to ‘stretch’ the life of the fleet.

“Though everyone acknowledges that the ferry system is an extension of the state highway network, there is a fierce resistance to fund the capital needs of WSF to make that linkage viable. The diminished level of service for the ferry system would be like having a two-lane replacement for the 520 Bridge. The highway connectors across the numerous bodies of water in western Washington are an integral part of the economic viability of the region..”

The Plan B budget reduces service on two routes, south Vashon and Sidney, during the next biennium. However, the Sidney ferry cancellation frees up the Chelan to move elsewhere, which allows other older ferries to be upgraded, like the Evergreen State and then the Hyak. This would create a renovated fleet that stretches the life of the older vessels and delays the capital expenditure for new ferries by 15 to 20 years. Other changes include the Evergreen State continuing to serve as the inter-island vessel for summer 2009; it would then be de-crewed by Dec. 2009 and removed from service. While the Hyak is being refurbished in spring 2011, the Evergreen would be re-crewed as a maintenance/relief boat. The Rhododendron currently serving Point Defiance/Tahlequah will be replaced by the Hiyu starting in fall 2009. The Rhododendron would be kept as a back-up vessel for Pierce County, while the Steilacoom II is continued to be leased, and then it will be retired.

“In this time of economic recession at all levels, it is difficult to imagine a decision in Olympia that would maintain the status quo for ferry service or some semblance of it given the Governor’s budget cuts in education and various social services,” remarked Sutton.

The only alternative would be another round of tariff increases, which the Governor acknowledges as being unacceptable. The WSF plan does, however, anticipate a yearly increase of 2.5 percent in fares.

“In the past two years of endless studies and surveys there has been no economic impact studies in the communities affected by these changes. No one wants to hear the bad news. Our own council hasn’t even initiated an analysis of significant transportation changes on our economy or way of life,” said Sutton.

An upside to Plan B is that it actually makes the service level better for the San Juans during the peak season: WSF is proposing to have four boats on domestic summer schedule from mid-May to mid-October.

The challenge will come in the off-season, when there would only be three boats in use, including the inter-island ferry. The local FAC is evaluating traffic data from the past two years and will participate with WSF planners to create new schedules based on that information. According to Sutton, the closure of Rosario for the next two summers will decrease the traffic demand from Orcas by 100 cars per day, which is about a 14 percent reduction.

“The strategy down-sound for the WSF Plan B seems to be to encourage local county government to assume the responsibility to move passengers on locally funded POV ferries. That would allow the further contraction of the car-ferry level of service. The only goal of Plan B is to ‘maintain the core marine highway system.’ When I queried Moseley, he said that he wants to retain the current linkages between communities across the sound, though the amount of service would be undefined. To an extreme that could mean one ferry per route which, incidentally, is the proposal for Bremerton in 2011.”

In January, WSF will hold public hearings on the draft long-range plan. The hearings are an opportunity for the public to learn more about the two options for consideration and to provide feedback. Public comments received will help inform the final plan, which will be provided to the State Legislature on Jan. 31. The format for the hearings is a 30-minute presentation followed by a 90-minute public comment period.

Moseley says that public feedback is critical on this plan that will affect the state marine transportation system over the next 22 years.

The meeting will be on Thursday, Jan. 15, from 11:35 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. aboard the San Juan Inter-Island Ferry. For those who cannot attend during the daytime, there is a meeting on Thursday, Jan. 15, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Fidalgo Senior Center, 1701 22nd St., Anacortes.

Copies of the draft plan will be available at the public hearing, 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.

For more information on the ferry financing legislated studies, visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/planning/ESHB2358.

For more ferry system information, visit the WSF Web site at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.