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Construction policy challenged as ferry fares rise

A proposal to hike ferry fares was the focus of a community meeting in Coupeville Tuesday, July 26, but one of the concerns addressed, regarding “build’em in Washington,” is an old argument and one not easily solved.

However, it’s not impossible, according to some state lawmakers.

“Everything should be on the table,” said Legislative District 10 Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton.

“I think absolutely we’ll be going back and looking at this.”

Others are less optimistic.

“I don’t think you’ll see a change in that regard anytime soon,” said District 10 Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

They are referring to the state law that requires all new state ferries to be built by Washington shipyards. The issue has been a source of controversy in the past because it’s believed the lack of competition leads to more expensive ferries.

The issue was brought up again Tuesday during a meeting sponsored by the Washington State Transportation Commission. The agency is charged with setting ferry tariffs and is proposing fare hikes that would raise $310 million for ferry operations over the next two years.

The amount to be generated is a figure that was set by the state Legislature when it approved the 2011-2013 biennium  transportation budget earlier this year.

Aside from commission members, Washington State Ferries officials, and the media, just three people attended the meeting at the Coupeville Inn. Of the two people that spoke, neither was adamantly opposed to the proposed fare hikes.

But both had concerns about the rising cost of ticket prices when existing state laws may be jacking up the cost of new ferries.

Ian Jefferds, a Central Whidbey business owner who is also the chair of the Coupeville Ferry Advisory Committee, said the problem was made clear with the recent purchase of the state’s three new Kwa-di Tabil class ferries.

The estimated replacement cost for the retired Steel Electrics was once around $35 million apiece, Jefferds said, but at the end of the day the state ended up paying more than twice that for each boat.

“To me that’s criminal,” Jefferds said.

According to the Washington  State Ferries website, the total budget for the three boats is $213.2 million‚  $76.93 million for the Chetzemoka and $136.9 million combined for the Salish and Kennewick.

But while Jefferds believes it to be a big issue, he’s not necessarily against increased fares if they work toward long-term route reliability. He also expressed support for the reservation system and examining other successful ferry services, such as British Columbia’s ferries.

James Magnusson, a Shangri La resident, said in a later interview that he agreed with Jefferds and believed the law should be looked at. During the meeting, he also addressed recent controversies about financial oversight and ferry-worker pay.

“I would feel better about the increases if I knew those things had been resolved,” Magnusson said.

Under the proposed plan, fares for most drivers, vehicles 14 to 22 feet in length, would go up about 2.5 percent in 2011 and about 3 percent in 2012. The rate can vary slightly from route to route as fares are rounded to the nearest nickel.

At the same time, cars under 14 feet would be given a 10 percent break each year in the hopes of adding capacity. Bicyclists also will be given a break.

Vehicles in the 22-to-30 foot range, and larger, will see fares increase marginally by the foot. Finally, ticket prices will go up for motorcycle riders and walk-on passengers, about 2.5 and 3 percent, while bicyclists will also pay less.

None of the above hikes include a separate 25-cent capital surcharge to be attached to each fare. Lawmakers created the fee this year to pay for future ferries. It was signed into law in June by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee could not be reached for comment. However, both Bailey and Smith said the state law requiring ferries to be built locally isn’t as simple as it sounds.

Bailey said the law is designed to keep jobs and money in Washington and that’s something she supports. But that doesn’t mean a bill can’t be crafted in a way that would make the bidding process more competitive, which may bring prices down.

“There are a lot of factors to consider,” Bailey said.

According to Smith such a bill could be in the future. The Legislature’s bipartisan ferry caucus made a lot of progress last year, Smith said, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if this issue is examined during the next legislative session.

She claimed the existing law was the result of complaints that Washington shipbuilders weren’t able to bid competitively because of tough, and expensive, state regulations. So, the challenge will be to draft a bill that makes ferry construction competitive yet doesn’t rule out local builders such as Nichols Brothers in Freeland, which helped build the three newest ferries.

“We have to figure out a way to level the playing field,” Smith said.

 

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