Haugen and Bailey talk ferries

Before a crowd of approximately 70 people, State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen and State Rep. Barbara Bailey talked Saturday about the future of the Port Townsend/Keystone ferry route, which has been without car service since Thanksgiving.

Haugen affirmed the importance of the route and committed herself to keeping the route open.

As the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, she outlined a possible scenario for a permanent replacement for the Steel Electric vessels.

“We will be moving forward to building new boats as soon as possible,” Haugen said during a brunch hosted by the League of Women Voters at the Whidbey Golf and Country Club.

She stressed the importance of going through the proper process of building the boats. There is talking of using one firm to build the replacement boats but that runs the risk of the state being sued.

By having two boats built, it would allow two different shipbuilders to share the work.

“That’s the best of both worlds,” Haugen said.

New ferries are expected to be completed in 14 months. Nichols Brothers Boat Builders in Freeland is one of the boat yards interested in the bid.

To get car ferry service back at Keystone, Washington State Ferries is planning to lease a Nichols-built vessel from Pierce County. However, it doesn’t look like that boat will be ready until early February, Haugen said during the meeting. The ferry system had aimed for mid-January.

Haugen added that the possible replacement boats will be a heavily debated topic during the upcoming legislative session.

The 80-year-old Steel Electrics were pulled from service in late November due to safety concerns surrounding extensive hull pitting that formed on one vessel’s hull. Then in December, officials decided it would be better to replace the current ferries rather than repair them. Those four vessels are the only ones in the ferry system’s fleet capable of navigating in and out of the narrow, and shallow, Keystone Harbor.

Bailey echoed Haugen’s words about the importance of the ferry route to the region.

“This is affecting all of the Northwest region,” Bailey said. “This is not a place where we should be and we should have never gotten there.”

The two legislators also highlighted the major issues that could be decided on during the short 60-day session that begins next week.

Bailey said she will work to revise recently-passed economic development legislation that would identify Island County as a rural county. She added that public health and education will continue to be major issues in the coming session.

“We believe we should fund education first,” Bailey said.

She also noted some of her recent accomplishments, including a trade mission to Taiwan and a visit to Salt Lake City and San Diego to learn about how to attract top researchers to the area. She was also appointed to the governor’s Council on Aging. She has been surveying people recently. After handing out surveys to the crowd, she mentioned that health care was the highest priority for people, followed by education, controlling taxes and spending and transportation.

Haugen touched upon the $100 million in the governor’s budget to repair the storm damage in southwest Washington.

She added there is also $18 million to provide a safety net to developmentally-disabled children and vulnerable adults and $31 million to pay for a cost-of-living adjustment for teachers.

Haugen said the upcoming session is going to be a fast one focusing on the supplemental budget, urgent needs and emergencies. She felt sorry for whoever was going to be chosen to replace Chris Strow as state representative.

“It’s going to be a mad run and it’s going to be hard to catch up,” Haugen said.

Some of the issues in the upcoming session include counselor registration, senior dental programs, new math standards, which Haugen hopes will improve student performance.

While the ferries are a hot-button topic, there are other transportation issues that need to be resolved, such as Highway 2, large amounts of snow in the Cascades, and the cable barriers on Interstate 5 in Marysville.

One sleeper issue concerns burial remains, Native American and pioneer, found on people’s property. Haugen said landowners need assurances of what exactly will happen if such remains are found on their property.

She added the session will also lay the groundwork for the 2009 budget year.

“We’re beginning to build for next session, which is a budget session,” Haugen said.

The ferries will continue to be an issue during that session as well as major policy changes in the ferry system.

“We are going to concentrate on building safe boats, not just bigger terminals,” Haugen said. She said the Legislature has to work to get the ferry system’s financial house in order as well.

During the brunch, both legislators were asked about universal health care in Washington state since Maine and California are trying to enact such programs.

Haugen said she supports universal health care but doesn’t see how it can be implemented on a state level.

Bailey doesn’t think universal health care is the direction to go. She said that more should be done to address the issue of health care costs and how to make it more affordable.

She added there isn’t a real consensus on health care and the country is struggling on how the system is organized.

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