Outsourcing state ferries: an idea that just won’t float

Washington State Ferries has an immediate need for new boats that can service the Keystone-Port Townsend route and is in the process of planning for the long-term replacement needs of the rest of its aging fleet. Providing the funding for these new vessels is a challenging task for the Legislature — but we also need to consider where these boats are going to be built.

The 2008 Legislature decided to limit the bidding process to shipbuilders in Washington state. We did not make this decision lightly. There was a serious argument made by some members that “cheaper is better” and that the bidding process should be open to any shipyard regardless of where it is located.

I believe that every project undertaken by our government should be done with a conscious effort to get the greatest value possible for the taxpayers — but I also recognize that sometimes the bottom line doesn’t accurately reflect what we’re paying for. “Let the buyer beware” applies even more to the government than it does to the consumer and I’ve been around long enough to know that cheaper isn’t always better.

When we’re talking about the long-term consequences of how our government is spending our tax dollars, we need to look beyond the bottom line and consider where that money is going. We have a responsibility to recognize the true value of what we’re paying for — and paying to outsource Washington jobs just doesn’t make sense.

Local shipyards employ local workers — so building ferries here in the Puget Sound means keeping local people employed and keeping your tax dollars circulating in our economy. Would you rather see your tax dollars stimulating our local economy or changing hands somewhere else?

Awarding a contract to a Washington shipyard provides economic security and opportunity that goes far beyond the initial amount of money that the state is investing in the new ferries. A local shipyard will end up purchasing materials from local vendors and providing pay and benefits to Washington workers, who will then continue to spend that money here in our state.

And building new ferries right here in Washington will ensure that our maritime industry remains a vital source of the talented workforce we’ll need to maintain and upgrade our ferries long into the future. Without that valuable resource to rely on we could end up needing to outsource valuable work for a generation or more into the future.

Washington is fortunate to have an economy that is far more diversified than it was the last time we were hit with a major recession and that’s why our state is weathering the current economic downturn better than the rest of the nation. But now isn’t the time to write off manufacturing in Washington — we need to make sure that industries like shipbuilding and aerospace remain a vital part of our state economy.

When the U.S. Air Force announced it wanted to spend $100 billion for aerial refueling tankers built by Airbus instead of Boeing there was an uproar over the idea of our government outsourcing a project being paid for by U.S. taxpayers. The Air Force claimed the Airbus product met their needs better than the Boeing proposal and represented a better value to the taxpayer — and that the “outsourcing” issue was largely an illusion since a significant portion of the work to convert Airbus commercial airliners into refueling tankers would be done in Alabama.

Ironically, many of the same people who were furious about outsourcing aerial tankers are now eager to send our tax dollars out of state to build ferries — even though outsourcing would not provide us with a ferry any better than what Washington shipbuilders can construct right here at home.

Washington and the Puget Sound are home to a proud shipbuilding and maritime tradition that has served us well in the past and which will be a vital part of our economic future — provided we don’t sell them out for the false promise of saving a few bucks by outsourcing.

State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.

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