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Legislators react to Gregoire’s Regional Ferry District plan

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Executive Policy Adviser Teresa Bernsten told the House Transportation Committee Thursday that the governor’s ferry system reorganization plan is patterned after successful ferry system operations in other parts of the U.S. and Canada.

According to Bernsten, the plan takes aspects of the British Columbia ferry system, a publicly owned corporation supported by provincial funds along with fares.

She said it’s also similar to the Golden Gate Ferry, a regional transportation district, and the Steamship Authority in Massachusetts which does not rely on any state subsidy yet has 100 percent farebox recovery, meaning it doesn’t lose money on operations.

At the Transportation Committee meeting a panel of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Legislative Director Jim Justin, Bernsten, and Washington State Department of Transportation Assistant Secretary for ferry system operations David Moseley elaborated on Gregoire’s plan to create a regional ferry district for this state.

The governor unveiled the ferry system plan at news conferences last week, and during her State of the State address to the legislature Tuesday.

Bernsten’s presentation to the committee established a loose schedule for the creation of a regional ferry district, as outlined by the governor, and justified Gregoire’s reasoning behind the project.

To establish a reasonable dollar amount for the state’s contribution to a Regional Ferry District, an interim ferry board would be appointed. That board, with state input, would determine service costs and revenue projections. The subsequent plan would then be referred to the Office of Financial Management for review. Once developed, the plan with its financial projections would be referred to voters in the regional district for ratification along with the selection of elected board members who would take over administrative responsibilities.

The district, as proposed now, would include those Puget Sound Counties that now have Washington State Ferry connections: Jefferson, Kitsap, Pierce, King, Snohomish, Island and San Juan.

But first the legislature must approve the plan. So far no specific legislation related to ferry system reorganization has been introduced.

Besides a core state funding package, the ferry district would also require income from fares, concessions and advertising, and local taxes if the district needs to expand service.

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, commented that the new proposal sounded more attractive to him than Gregoire’s original three-legged approach, which involved only a state subsidy, fares, and local taxes. He said the newly presented approach seemed different since the communities would define the core service. “If there is additional funding needed, maybe they could go to their local taxpayer,” he said, as more of an afterthought.

When Gregoire's Regional Ferry District proposal was unveiled Jan. 6, legislators had many questions. But after the plan was described at the House Transportation Committee in more detail, some representatives at the hearing seemed inclined to fine-tune the proposal for their consideration.

Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said in response to the proposal, “It has been characterized as a death spiral, but when you start looking at the charts it’s a good example of tightening our belts: Ferry communities giving a little, the state supporting us.”

However, she still said that “Core service as defined by the Governor’s proposal is essentially cutting off a lot of communities’ connection to the east side of the state at nighttime.”

In closing, Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, offered optimistic remarks for the ferry system’s future. “We know the ferries are iconic to our state, they’re not just iconic to the counties in our state,” she said. “We need to come together and fix this and a Band-Aid is not the appropriate fix this time.”

The response in the House Transportation Committee to the ferry system reorganization plan was in sharp contrast to its reception in the Senate, where Senate Transportation Committee Chair Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, declared after the governor’s address to the legislature Tuesday that such a ferry system plan is dead so far as she is concerned. Her committee would receive such a reorganization plan should it be proposed in bill form, either as a referral from the House or as directly filed in the Senate.

Janelle Kohnert is a reporter with the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Olympia News Bureau.

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