February 17, 2008
You don't know what you got 'til it's gone.
Joni Mitchell was singing about paving over Hawaiian paradise in 1970, but the lyric could just as well illustrate today's Washington State Ferries travails. Riders probably didn't realize in 1999 that they were enjoying the ferry system's zenith, and that in less than a decade it would crumble around them.
Hop in the DeLorean for a trip back in time.
—In 1999, it cost barely pocket change to cross Puget Sound. Passengers paid $3.70 for a round trip, a car and driver $6.50 each way, and that's without the frequent-user discount. Now it's $6.70 and $11.55, respectively.
—The last of three huge boats, the 202-car, 2,500-passenger Puyallup, had just been delivered. There hasn't been a new ferry built since then. Four were removed from service in November because corroded and cracked hulls made them unsafe. The Legislature in 2001 authorized the building of four new boats, and provided $348 million for them two years later. But, five years after that, there's still no final design or price.
—Passenger ferries were racing between Bremerton and Seattle in 30 minutes. Many more boats and complementary terminals for Kingston and Southworth were designed, permitted, approved by the Legislature and on the verge of being built. Today, fast-ferry service isn't even in the ferry system's vocabulary.
—Ferry system ridership had steadily climbed to an all-time high of 2.9 million in 1999. Since then, it has plummeted to less than 2.4 million.
In November 1999, voters overwhelmingly decided they hated the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax — which cost the average family a usually unplanned-for $150 each year — so much that they'd gamble with cutting ferries, buses and local government. They overwhelmingly passed Initiative 695, costing WSF 58 percent of its dedicated tax revenue to operate the system and 70 percent of its capital budget.
The initiative was deemed unconstitutional in the courts. But the Legislature, following the people's will, put it in place.
Tim Eyman, the initiative's sponsor, said the state had a $1 billion surplus it could use to fund the ferries for the rest of the biennium. And after that, he said, the tax cut would create consumer spending that would increase sales tax revenues.
If that ever happened, not much of it made its way it to the ferry system.
Today, the ferry system barely has enough boats to go around. In an emergency, such as the one that happened when the Yakima hit a breakwater in Bremerton recently and cracked its hull, no backups were available. The ferry system had to replace it with a passenger ferry that it was about to sell on eBay and two others from a private company.
After the 80-year-old Steel Electric boats were retired because of hull problems, the Port Townsend-Keystone route was without a car ferry for more than two months. Disruptions will continue as boats are sent to shipyards for Coast Guard-ordered steel replacement or repairs.
The state Department of Transportation, of which the ferry system is a part, has rebounded from I-695 pretty well. In the past few years, voters approved gas-tax increases of 5 cents per gallon. Some of that went toward the four unbuilt ferries, and then 9 cents more, but the money was mostly devoted to highway projects.
During the past eight years, no dedicated funding has replaced the ferries' license-tab money.
There are signs that the ferry system, after the spate of incidents the past three months, has bottomed out and is ready to rebound. Last year, the Legislature froze skyrocketing ferry fares and terminal work and ordered several studies it hopes to use to get the system back on track. They will be completed by the end of this year, in time for the 2009 Legislature to make policy decisions based on them.
A change in leadership also is being counted on. The Department of Transportation is now controlled by the governor. A new ferries chief, David Moseley, will take over in March, and Paula Hammond was named Transportation secretary in October.
"I think that has paved the way to resolve some of these questions that should've been resolved years ago," Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said of the new leadership.
A bill passed last week provides $100 million to build three small ferries, the first of which could be on the water in spring 2009. Part of the money was diverted from funds allotted for the four 144-car boats. That, combined with rising costs since the funding was approved, will probably knock the number of big boats that can be built down to three.
If Transportation and the shipyards can reach a deal this summer, the first one would be delivered in 2010.
"Admittedly it took too long," Rolfes said. "Hopefully we'll see some metal cut soon."
Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, filed a bill that would've increased the ferry system's share of the gas tax for operations from half a cent to 1½ cents per gallon. It predictably wasn't considered as lawmakers are postponing any funding decisions until next year after the studies are completed.
"That's the only way that I see to make the system fair," she said. "We have really neglected our ferry system. We haven't thought about it as a highway, which it is.
Added Appleton: "I do understand that road projects have been committed and if you take that money (for ferries) you're going to have to delay some projects, but ferries are roads and they haven't been treated fairly over the last 20 years."
Appleton said the studies will be looking at other revenue sources, "but I don't think you can put it on the backs of commuters any longer. They have paid their fair share."
Until the research is completed, Rolfes says that it's too soon to even talk about where the money's going to come from.
"At this point, it hasn't even been determined how much money is needed," she said. "The focus needs to be on preserving what we have now while we're doing the strategic planning."
Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said the state has to reverse the trend of poorer service at higher costs. Kilmer and Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, sit on a joint legislative task force on ferries. Its goals, Kilmer said, are to make the ferry system more responsive to the needs of commuters, come up with a long-term strategy for vessel replacement and maintenance, and keep costs down in order to keep fares down.
Until the ferry system gets back on the feet, the suffering can't be borne by one or two routes, Kilmer said.
"This is a particularly painful time for the system," he said. "One of the issues we've all raised is the pain needs to be handled equitably. You've got to make sure there's parity across routes."
Seaquist has taken the lead in looking for cuts in unnecessary headquarters staffers and consultants within the ferry system. He says that not only do ferries need to be replaced, but more need to be added.
"We need a fleet replacement plan, a maintenance plan that gets us from here to there, and a financing plan that delivers the money to do that," he said. "We simply don't have the answer to the funding."