A bargain too good to resist?

There are times when principles make you sit on your checkbook. And then there are bargains that seem too good to pass up.

It seems a third Olympic-class ferry is just such a good deal.

The Legislature ended its session without producing a state transportation plan. After prolonged negotiations, the ultimate roadblock was a list of so-called reforms demanded by the Senate’s GOP-dominated Majority Coalition.

In the name of government accountability, these senators were willing to neglect vital transportation needs unless they were are allowed to impose financial and operating strictures on state projects and the bureaucracies that oversee them. Their demands included everything from fast-tracking engineering and environmental reviews to earmarking all transportation sales-tax revenues for transportation projects.

This was the right thing to do, they declared, because the Department of Transportation had run amok on projects like the 520 bridge and Seattle’s tunnel.

Not everyone agreed this was a productive approach to constructing roads, interchanges and transit infrastructure, but few doubted the Majority’s Coalition’s commitment to principles.

Then the ferry proposal floated onto the scene.

Vigor Industrial of Seattle already was building two 144-vehicle vessels for Washington State Ferries. If the state ordered a third ferry now, it could buy it at current prices. So, a search began for the necessary $123 million.

The solution came in a House bill that tacked a $5 service fee on vehicle registrations and a $12 fee on title transfers. The fees will go into an account used for procuring ferries.

Now, the state’s ferry system is not exempt from questions about things like overtime costs or its purchase of cock-eyed Kwa-di Tabil-class vessels. Eastern Washington representatives grumble that Spokane taxpayers subsidize Puget Sound passengers; one rural Southwest Washington legislator suggests that “rich people who choose to live on islands” should buy their own ferries.

Yet, this bill sailed smoothly through the Senate and passed the House easily on a somewhat partisan vote. How in the name of accountability did this happen?

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima (and chief among transportation “reformers”), explained: “We needed to keep building that third ferry because it saves us millions of dollars, building three in a row.”

No critique of the ferry system’s track record. Barely a murmur about the fact that these new fees are permanent and won’t go away once the cost of the third ferry is covered.

Those cable TV shopping channels really know how to overcome buyer resistance: “Act now on this special one-time offer!”

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