Ferry increase in May?

"Washington State Ferries is seriously contemplating a 25 percent fare increase to go into effect as early as next May, with hikes continuing over the next six years. And that’s just to pay part of the tab for ferry system operations. A lot more money will be required to keep the boats running and the terminals standing: about $300 million per biennium over the next decade to maintain the system at current levels, and still more to enable the system to keep up with future growth, according to officials on a joint task force recommending short- and long-term solutions for the state ferry system.The rate hike is being considered by the ferry system’s Tariff Policy Committee, according to members Bob Distler and Ed Sutton of Orcas Island, both of whom attended a meeting of the group Dec. 4. The committee is expected to make formal recommendations on rates in early January. This will be followed by public meetings throughout western Washington, including Orcas and San Juan islands. The final decision on rates will be made in April by the state Transportation Commission, a group appointed by the governor. The rate hikes represent a long-term effort to require ferry riders to pay 80 percent of the cost of ferry operation. The plan is contingent upon the Legislature agreeing to make up the deficit.And that’s not the only ferry-related funding issue facing the Legislature. The state Senate and House of Representative will also have to devise a spending package to pay for upkeep and construction of ferries and terminals. The plan will represent just one small part of an overall state transportation funding plan that, state Senator Harriet Spanel (D-Bellingham) says, “will probably go to the voters” for a decision. It promises to be a daunting task, Spanel admits. Last year the Legislature solved the problem for the short term by using money from the state general fund to subsidize ferry system. But Spanel says that won’t be a viable option during the 2001 session. With both houses of the Legislature so evenly split, many in Olympia are predicting gridlock. The state is also bound to commit funds for recently approved voter initiatives that will give teachers annual cost-of-living increases and reduce class sizes. No wonder there’s a “somber mood in Olympia,” Spanel adds. The ferry system’s capital expenditure problems are compounded by the fact that many of the ferries are aging and not being retired.The ferry system has determined that four aging ferries will have to be replaced over the next 10 years. Two of them, the Illahee and Nisqually, provide the inter-island service in the San Juans. Price tag: $63 million per biennium. Another $40 million per biennium will be required to upgrade the terminals in Anacortes and Mukilteo.One possible source of funding for ferries and other transportation needs is to increase the state gas tax. Spanel says she’d be willing to consider such a plan. The state of Washington hasn’t increased its gas tax for 10 years. "

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