Ferry system may shrink with the economy

OLYMPIA — An era of unprecedented ferry building predicted by Gov. Chris Gregoire appears to be over before it ever began.

Gregoire is proposing to build just one ferry in her second term, down from the six new vessels she once boasted of procuring and deploying by 2012.

But leaders of Washington State Ferries aren’t pressing her for more vessels because they know there’s no money to pay for them.

They’ve produced a new study that concludes if the ferry system does not make itself over in significant ways, then it will wind up billions of dollars short of what it needs to serve riders and maintain an aging fleet.

“The ferry system is not financially sustainable. We need to decide how we’re going to make it financially sustainable,” said David Moseley, the state’s assistant transportation secretary in charge of the ferries.

The study looked ahead to 2030 and what budget issues to expect for a system now operating 10 ferry routes with nearly 500 sailings a day plus maintaining 20 terminals from Point Defiance to Sidney, B.C.

It came up with two paths, Plan A and Plan B.

Under Plan A, Washington State Ferries doesn’t alter course much and winds up with a $3.5 billion deficit.

Almost all of the red ink is in its capital budget, where 10 boats would be bought to replace the already retired Steel Electric-class vessels and others that will be taken out of service in the next 22 years.

Of the 10 new boats, three would be of the 64-car Island Home class and seven of the larger 144-car Issaquah class.

Under this plan, riders on the Port Townsend-Keystone route would get one Island Home year-round and two-boat service in the summer starting in 2011. Two of the large boats would eventually be deployed on the Mukilteo-Clinton run, a slight expansion of service.

Plan B is much different and winds up with a deficit of $1.5 billion.

Only five boats get built and only one, an Island Home, would be done before 2021.

Service would be cut on some routes and eliminated between Anacortes and Sidney, B.C.

Night service would end in 2011 on the Edmonds-Kingston run and those additional runs on summer weekends on Mukilteo-Clinton route would go away in 2013.

What might be most significant about Plan B is its shift in approach for how service is offered between King and Kitsap counties.

This proposal envisions the state operating fewer car ferries and the two counties filling the gap by paying to run passenger-only ferries. Folks who travel between Seattle and Bremerton and Southworth and Kingston and those going to and from Vashon Island would be affected.

“The bottom line is these are two very different visions for the future of the ferry system,” Moseley said.

Riders will get their say in a series of public hearings next month. Gregoire and lawmakers could wind up choosing one or coming up with an alternative in the 2009 legislative session.

Gregoire’s proposed transportation budget follows the path of Plan B.

“It is a shift in vision for what our ferry system is or will be in the future given the realities of the economy and the realities of the budget,” said Jill Satran, Gregoire’s transportation policy adviser.

There’s money for a single 64-car Island Home-class vessel for the Port Townsend-Whidbey Island route. A contract for the boat was awarded earlier this month, and it will replace a Steel Electric-class vessel removed from service in November 2007.

No funds are included for buying a second boat for that route. Nor is there money for three 144-car Issaquah-class vessels the state has been negotiating to buy for more than a year.

Satran said it did not make sense to invest in a lot of vessels if the system is going to wind up smaller.

Gregoire also proposes no funds for new terminals in Edmonds or Mukilteo, while service between Anacortes and Sidney, B.C., would be cut and a 2.5 percent fare hike is planned.

State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said she expects the study to inspire fervent discussion among legislators.

“I think it’s a realistic picture for the future. The Legislature will make the decision. It’s all about money,” said Haugen, who as chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee will write her chamber’s budget for ferries.

Haugen said she wants to find money to build a total of three Island Home boats and not cut any service, not even the run to Sidney.

“We’re going to try to stay on track. It’s Round 1,” she said.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said she’ll be seeking out other scenarios for the ferry system, ones that cut costs without hurting users.

“We have work to do,” she said. “We have to look at our marine highway system and plan appropriately so we don’t find ourselves stranding entire communities.

“What we cannot do is have no plan for replacing the boats,” she said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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