BEFORE the holidays it became clear that the Washington State Ferries system was in real trouble. Multiple boats were breaking down, many runs were late or pulled off the route altogether. Then it was announced that the system’s director, David Moseley, was a finalist for another job (which he was not offered). Even the annual holiday cruise for 1,000 people with developmental disabilities was canceled for the first time in 20 years because of a ferry shortage.
We have a crisis and it has been coming since the loss of the car-tab, or motor-vehicle-excise tax, funding in 2000. Without a dedicated-funding source the ferry system is not financially sustainable in its current form. The 70-year-old boats are being held together with baling wire and by ferry riders who are asked to pay a higher percentage of the operating costs each year.
To make matters even worse, recently the Coast Guard announced the ferry system will now be required to have more employees on the boats in case of an emergency. Funding to provide extra personnel can only come from cutting service.
The Washington State Ferries system has been a part of our Puget Sound life for more than a hundred years. It must be saved because it is essential to the economy of our state, to our ability to attract tourism and to our way of life in Puget Sound.
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We have a problem that cries out for a solution but someone must step up to shepherd the solution through the legislative process. It is frustrating that we have known about the funding problem for the past 10 years but our legislators have failed to offer a solution.
All the legislators who represent ferry-dependent counties have been successful in finding some capital money for a few new boats and throwing a Band-Aid at the operating problem, usually pushing it off to the next session, and the next session.
It does not seem like the city of Seattle has much interest in joining with the other ferry communities to support a solution. It’s hurtful. Who benefits more from a good ferry system than Seattle?
Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a revenue package each of the past two sessions. The first was a regional taxing and governance authority for ferries. Last session the governor recommended a transportation package supported by an increase in the oil-barrel fee, which would have provided substantial new revenue for ferries.
Neither of those approaches got through the Legislature. So we continue to kick the can down the road. The only way we will save the ferry system is by finding new revenue.
We have a new opportunity with a passenger-only ferry system operating throughout Puget Sound. Kitsap Transit, with the help of U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has secured the funding to build a passenger-only ferry that can get from Bremerton to downtown Seattle in 35 minutes.
The boat is in its final testing by the state of Washington to determine its impact on the shoreline. If it receives its approval from the state, Kitsap Transit would probably have to go to the voters for a small property-tax increase to support the passenger-only ferry service.
Given the uncertainty of the future of the Washington State Ferries service, it would probably be a wise investment by the voters of Kitsap County.
We are running out of time. It’s time for people who believe the Washington State Ferries system is important to get organized, it is time for leadership, and most of all, it is time to solve this problem.
Cary Bozeman is former mayor of Bremerton and Bellevue.