Ferry district taxing plan sinks, surcharge being developed

Much to the relief of Whidbey Island elected officials and ferry leaders, Gov. Christine Gregoire’s plan for a regional ferry taxing district appears to have sunk before ever really getting afloat.

In fact, state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano and chairwoman of the powerful Senate Transportation Commission, said the governor’s draft bill is sitting right where it should be, in her desk drawer unsigned and without a single sponsor.

“It’s dead,” Haugen said. “It hasn’t even been introduced.”

However, several ideas to bail out the ferry system are still alive, including a 25-cent fare surcharge for new ferry construction.

Gregoire proposed the creation of a nine-county ferry district to take over management of the cash-strapped ferry system. The idea was meant as an alternative funding mechanism for the transportation agency, as costs would be shared by both the state and the counties within the new authority.

The plan has been controversial from the start, however. Many complained it was unfair because it regionalized funding of a statewide highway system. And no one wanted to establish such a paradigm, according to Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.

“Even people in Eastern Washington counties saw that it would set in place a dangerous precedent,” she said.

Price Johnson was also against the plan because she said Whidbey Island residents are already paying their fair share for ferry service. For example, she claimed South Whidbey commuters currently cover about 90 percent of the costs of the Clinton-Mukilteo route.

“Locals are paying a pretty hefty piece already,” she said.

She also wondered how Island County could ever take on the burden of funding a ferry district when it is being crushed under the weight of its own financial crisis. Over the past few years, it’s laid off more than 60 employees and cut millions from the general fund.

Haugen said Gregoire probably never believed her proposal would go anywhere and that her intention all along was to cast attention on Washington State Ferries. Agency officials have said time and again that its current funding mechanism is insufficient and that unless something changes, service reductions will be unavoidable.

In its 2009 long-range plan, ferries identified a funding gap of $3.3 billion over 22 years, or an average of approximately $300 million per biennium. That includes the cost of replacing existing ferries with new vessels.

At the governor’s behest, agency officials announced a plan this past year to reduce the annual budget by nearly $17 million over the next two years.

“I think she was making a statement,” Haugen said.

The message she sent to the Legislature is that the funding problems facing the ferry system are very real and need to be addressed, she said. It appears lawmakers heard Gregoire loud and clear, as several bills aimed at achieving cost savings through agency streamlining have been proposed.

One addresses overtime issues of ferry workers, reforming both employee pay and hours, while another bill seeks to do away with the Marine Employees Commission. According to Haugen, those two bills alone would save $12 million.

Haugen is personally sponsoring a bill that would do away with a surcharge the ferry system pays for when it purchases diesel fuel. Another she has yet to introduce would add a 25-cent surcharge on fares for the sole purpose of paying for new ferries.

Although she said it’s estimated that the hike would generate $5 million a year, she offered no predictions about its passage. It would need a two-thirds majority to pass and with the budget as tight as it is, any new taxes would be a hard sell.

“Whether the Republicans will support it, I don’t know,” Haugen said.

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