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Ferry reforms proposed in Olympia

A bipartisan group of state legislators introduced a series of bills this week aimed at making the beleaguered state ferry system more efficient.

Legislators hope the bills, which are currently in various state House and Senate committees, will address the public’s concerns about how the state ferry system handles its resources.

One of the more noteworthy components of the bills would put ferry workers on par with employees in other state agencies.

“Ferry workers are doing a great job, but the fact of the matter is they need to be treated as other state employees,” said State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, in a Tuesday morning interview. She noted that when ferry employees work overtime their pay can reach as high as triple time, which she described as unacceptable.

Senate Bill 5405 would prohibit overtime pay greater than 150 percent of base pay; prohibit minimum eight-hour shift lengths; and prohibit free passage on ferries except for current employees for work purposes.

The bill would also abolish binding arbitration and define ferry captains as management, which would prevent them from being members of the union.

Haugen pointed out approximately 70 percent of ferry costs relate to labor.

She added she’s starting to hear the first winds of criticism coming from the unions representing ferry workers. The Inland Boatman’s Union website Tuesday called the legislative moves “the largest attack on the union in 30 years.”

Another bill (SB 5406) would abolish the Marine Employees Commission and move its duties over to the Public Employment Relations Commission, which would save the state an estimated $225,000. The bill also establishes performance measures based on customer satisfaction, on-time performance, safety and cost efficiencies. If the standards aren’t met, then the ferry system would be directed to privatize its management services.

Haugen said she hopes the efficiencies would help reduce costs within the ferry system by 10 percent. That saving would help absorb a multi-million dollar budget hole legislators are trying to resolve.

There are several solutions being considered, including a series of cutbacks that would eliminate a second ferry at the Port Townsend to Coupeville ferry route during the summer; and establishing a special taxing district to help fund ferry services.

Haugen said she is committed to bringing in a second Coupeville ferry during the busy summer months, but other cutbacks, such as a shorter summer season and eliminating some sailings, may be considered.

While the legislature tries to reform the ferry system, a citizens’ group is working to prevent further cuts to existing service.

The Ferry Community Partnership is currently gathering signatures for a petition asking that the legislature forego further cuts to the ferry system.

The group also wants to see a permanent funding source to pay for new vessels and wants construction to begin in 2012 on 144-car ferries. It also wants to see a budget that caps fares at reasonable rates.

“We want to show our concern,” said Kari Ulatoski, a Vashon Island resident representing the Ferry Community Partnership. She noted that removing a ferry from service as proposed would leave the system without a backup boat in case of emergencies.

More than 1,700 people have signed the petition since organizers posted it last month. They hope to present the petition, along with its concerns, to the Joint Transportation Commission next month.

The petition can be found at www.petitiononline.com/mod_perl/signed.cgi?sosferry.

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