There are rough waters ahead that threaten Washington’s world-class ferry system and it’s on us to do something about it. Our picturesque ferries serve 23 million people a year and help define us throughout the country and around the world, but the future of this system, as we know it, is in jeopardy.
This week, Gov. Gregoire offered one approach to fix our ferries and preserve these vital marine highways that are as important to the Pacific Northwest economy as major freeways. The governor proposed creating a regional ferry district to operate the ferries.
The proposal would put decision-making in the hands of a district board that is directly accountable to customers and ferry-served communities and divide its funding between the state and the region. The district would include all or some of Western Washington counties with ferry service.
Why is such a drastic change necessary? The ferry system, which operates 20 terminals on nine routes serving commuters, vacationers and commercial interests, is in a funding crisis and, in fact, is not sustainable at the service level travelers have come to expect.
Washington State Ferries lost 20 percent of its operating support and 75 percent of its dedicated capital funding when voters approved Initiative 695 in 1999 and the Legislature enacted the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax reductions during the 2000 legislative session.
Over the past two years, WSF has made progress by reducing expenditures by $28 million annually. In addition, our employees did not take their arbitrated salary increase, which saved $17 million. The governor’s budget for fiscal years 2011-2013 proposes administrative and nonservice operational cuts of $1.2 million per year. We are cutting costs wherever we can; for example, we have reduced overtime costs by 10 percent between fiscal years 2009-2010 and we are on track to make further reductions in 2011.
Something needs to change and the governor’s proposal is one solution for consideration. The state cannot meet the ferry system’s funding challenges on its own. Currently it
is funded primarily from two sources: fares and state taxpayers. The governor’s proposal for a regional ferry district would have local taxing authority — adding a critical third leg to the stool to meet the long-term needs of this Washington icon on which so many depend. It also would provide those who have financial responsibility for the ferry system a direct role in its governance and policies.
Ultimately legislators, local officials and ferry riders will have to come to grips with the serious funding problem that has been with the ferry system for several years and find solutions. Absent major reform, the ferry system faces a drastic financial shortfall and customers will see unpredictability year after year. This means old terminals, even older ferries and declining service.