Northwest NEWS

December 27, 1999

Local News

State Ferry system to make drastic cuts in service, staffing, and capital improvements

by Marshall Haley, staff reporter

   You know that money Tim Eyman promised you would save for approving I-695's MVET cuts last month? You might want to use it for a partial down payment on a boat--that is, if you prefer a timely getaway to Puget Sound's islands next year. Otherwise you'd better love waiting for hours on already overcrowded ferry docks, with a possibility you'll pay 2-3 times the current fares.

   Last week, the state Transportation Commission followed recommendations by the ferry administration to make drastic cuts in service, staffing, and capital improvements, to compensate for revenue losses from I-695. The system's first cuts, in January, will eliminate 92 of their 314 administrative, support, and engineering positions.

   After July 1, the ferry system plans to take 10 boats out of service, including the Hyak, the only one of four 28-30-year-old Super Class ferries that has not been refurbished. Passenger-only boats on the Vashon and Bremerton runs will be gone, as will many mid-day and later evening runs on all routes, including interisland San Juan runs needed by many island school children. Ferry staff told the commission that reducing Edmonds-Kingston runs would strand many Boeing-Everett swing-shift workers.

   Commission chairwoman Connie Niva said they shouldn't expect much help from the legislature, other than in the unlikely event they agree to divert highway fund money to the ferry system. Another offsetting factor, raising ferry rates, would require voter approval of a statewide referendum, as stipulated in I-695.

   How about Eyman's persistent claim that such reactions would be nothing more than Gov. Locke and the legislature punishing voters for making them work harder to find alternative funding?

   "That's simply nonsense," said Pat Patterson, Washington State Ferries spokesperson. "Mr. Eyman does a disservice to the public to keep repeating that. He is not on the front lines and clearly doesn't understand the transportation issues we deal with daily, regarding how the ferry system is run or funded.

   "His lack of experience is also clear from his new highway proposal. His claim that I-695 caused only a two-percent budget reduction is simply not correct. I think more people understand that now.

   "We understand that I-695 was not a vote against the ferry system, but, today, service cuts are the only alternative to meet voters' demand to streamline government. Service cuts and fare increases are as distasteful to us as to the public, but that's the state of affairs. By next July, we will be at the end of our capital funds from MVET. After that--forget about boat and dock refurbishment projects or new boats--we will be struggling just to maintain the current facilities."

   When the post-I-695 budget kicks in on July 1, lost MVET revenues will cut $232 million from the ferry system's 1999 budget of $323 million for capital construction projects, and $67 million from the current $313 million operating budget.

   Can anything stop drastic service cuts? The private Kitsap Transit has talked of saving the Bremerton-Seattle run by buying the passenger boats, in a plan that would more than double those fares.

   "We believe the push in the legislature has to address capital funding," said Patterson. "We're now facing operating without a sizable portion of our budget. We won't know the extent of fleet layoffs until the legislative session; that's why cuts won't take effect until July. It also gives people time to adjust. For example, some people might decide to move out of Kitsap County. We'll try to maintain routes with a heavy tourist trade, but cutbacks will make it more difficult for residents on some runs, like [Bremerton and] the San Juans."