State officials say without funding five ferry routes would be scuttled

Ferry service between Port Townsend and Coupeville, and on four other routes in the state, could be eliminated under a worst-case funding scenario presented by transportation officials.

If no new funding is found, only the top ridership routes would remain: Edmonds-Kingston, Mukilteo-Clinton and Seattle-Bainbridge. Service would also continue for the island access routes of Anacortes-San Juans and Fauntleroy-Vashon.

State transportation secretary Paula Hammond laid out the scenario in her state-of-transportation address on Monday.

In a 10-year period beginning in 2013, the ferry system expects to fall $1.3 billion short of meeting expenses, officials say.

“It’s of course a very ugly picture,” ferry system chief David Moseley said.

In addition to Port Townsend-Coupeville, routes that could be cut are Seattle-Bremerton, Southworth-Vashon, Southworth-Fauntleroy, Tahlequah-Point Defiance and Anacortes-Sidney, B.C.

Two state legislators who represent Whidbey Island don’t expect the bleak picture to materialize.

“As long as I’m here we’re not cutting any boats,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. Haugen is chairwoman of the Senate transportation committee.

“We could cut five highways in the system, too,” she said.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said the ferries are part of the state highway system and should be funded as such. Ferry users have borne an ever-increasing part of the burden for funding the boats through fare increases, she said.

“To say we suddenly can’t afford those routes, I think that’s really problematic,” Smith said.

In suggesting the possible cuts, ferry officials may have overlooked the connection the Port Townsend-Coupeville route provides between Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor and Navy installations in Bangor and on Indian Island, Smith said.

“That is a critical security link,” she said.

Moseley said that to determine which routes would stay or go, ferry system officials did the math on costs and revenues. The island access routes would remain in the system as a “moral obligation,” he said.

The state has been transferring money from highways and other transportation accounts since 2000 to prop up the ferry system, Moseley said. This includes $142 million for June 2011 through June 2013.

Now, though, the transportation funds are running dry for road projects and other needs, officials have said.

“We needed to illustrate what a no-new-revenue, no-new-transfer system might look like,” Moseley said.

He said cutting the routes can be avoided if the Legislature were to pass Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed $3.7 billion package in tax and fee increases, and new fees for transportation over the next 10 years.

These would include a fee of $1.50 per refined barrel of oil to raise $2.75 billion; a $15 increase in car tabs, $760 million; a 15 percent license fee increase on heavy trucks, $177 million, and a new, $100-a-year fee for all-electric vehicles to raise $10 million. The money would pay for numerous road projects in addition to covering the ferries.

Local governments also would be allowed to approve their own car tab fees, on top of those charged by the state, of up to $40 per year for transportation.

Haugen said she likes most of the funding package.

“We’re going to be looking at everything,” she said.

Smith was more skeptical, hinting that the ferry system can still be more efficient in the way it spends money, particularly in boat building.

“I think we need to look at all proposals,” Smith said. “We need to recognize where we can find cost efficiencies and savings. They have made some improvements and I think we can make more.”

The Port Townsend-Coupeville route was without a dedicated ferry for nearly three years.

Three ferries in the Steel Electric class, including two on the Port Townsend-Whidbey route, were pulled from service just before Thanksgiving in 2007 following an investigation by The Herald that found the 80-year-old ferries were being used to carry passengers despite extensive corrosion and cracking in the hulls. The ferries did not meet federal standards in place since the 1950s.

The Steilacoom II, a small ferry on loan from Pierce County, provided the only service on the route from early 2008 until the 64-vehicle Chetzemoka was built and put into service in late 2010.

The state has since built two more 64-vehicle boats, the Salish and the Kennewick. The Salish is now the primary boat for the Port Townsend-Coupeville route, to be joined by the Kennewick next summer. The three new boats were built for a combined $206 million.

Construction is expected to begin soon on a 144-vehicle, $147 million ferry. Work is expected to take slightly more than two years. It’s not certain which route the boat will serve.

With two other boats built in the 1950s nearing retirement age, officials would like to build two more 144-vehicle boats, Moseley said.

Even if Gregoire’s funding package is approved, however, it would pay only for ongoing maintenance of the system. It would not cover new boats or improvements to terminals.

Haugen said the ferry system is important to the economy and that the state needs to find a long-term solution to its funding conundrum.

“We need to keep people working,” she said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439;

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