As has become the pattern, state transportation leaders are again talking about the possibility of cutting back ferry service in order to help balance the budget. The governor asked Washington State Ferries to identify $5 million in cuts. In response, the department came back with a plan that would affect eight runs, including the two that serve Whidbey Island.
The cuts would obviously have a negative impact on commuters and tourists. What’s more, such proposals only add to the uncertainty that many residents and business owners feel about the ferries as fares continue to climb higher and higher.
Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Democrat who represents the district that includes Whidbey, has vowed that the cutbacks won’t happen. As chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, she’s in a position to protect the ferry service from lawmakers who would rather see the money spent on roads. But she won’t be there to play defense forever. She has a strong challenger in Oak Harbor resident Barbara Bailey, a state representative, and has said this will be her last term if she does win.
Haugen is correct that the state needs a stable funding source dedicated to ferries. The best idea would be an increase in the car-tab fee.
Critics will argue that such a hike would subvert the public’s will. Initiative 695, the $30 car-tab fee measure, was overwhelmingly passed by voters, deemed unconstitutional and then adopted by lawmakers. The initiative had a huge impact on transportation funding as well as local government. Unfortunately, the ferry system was the big loser.
Many people may support a small increase in the car-tab fee if it was specifically dedicated to the ferry service. People like to know where their money is going. A lot of car owners didn’t like the old car-tab fee because it was an especially painful lump sum that funded a hodgepodge of government programs.
The ferry runs are a part of the state highway system and are as vital as roads are to any community. Imagine the uproar in another region if the state proposed to close down a busy bridge at night.
The ferry system shouldn’t have to be funded separately from the rest of the state transportation budget, but doing so would hopefully end the annual fight over the ferry budget.