Tuesday, January 6, 2009

JTC hears draft ferry plan

The Joint Transportation Committee just wrapped up a meeting focused on the future of the state ferry system. Legislators got a sneak peek into a report that Washington State Ferries is finalizing (WSF), which takes a critical look at how the ferry system can overcome some troubling shortfalls and maintain its viability into the future.

As many of us saw last year, several ferries were suddenly
yanked out of service due to safety concerns, leaving many people in ferry communities in a lurch. To boot, other ferries still in service are aging (average age: 34 years) and, along with some aging terminals, are in need of capital investment. WSF was dealt a major blow several years ago with the elimination of the motor vehicle excise tax, a major source of ferry funding.

Since 2006 the Legislature has been taking a hard look at the ferry system from top to bottom. The focus is on ensuring safe, efficient service, and prioritizing new vessels over new terminals. The
long-term planning report discussed today is the result of HB 2358, passed in 2007. It examines the ways the system can recapitalize itself, try to alleviate capacity issues, and meet increasing ridership demands over the next 20 years. The report essentially outlines two plans?

Plan A assumes that the State will continue in its current role as owner, operator, and principal funder of ferry services in the Puget Sound region. 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 assumes operational strategies would be implemented over time. It also contains a budget shortfall, but it is significantly smaller than Plan A.

Today’s meeting isn’t the end of the story. WSF is soliciting public comment on the draft plan until January 21. before it finalizes the plan and sends it to the Legislature for consideration. Then, as House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) said today, “This is just the beginning,” of the dialog over what kind of action will be taken this session.