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Guest Opinion

By BOB DISTLER

The recent spate of opinions reported in the December 20 and 27 editions about recommendations of the legislature's Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) ferry finance study are so wide of the mark as to be almost laughable.

Members of the JTC, consisting of the chair and ranking minority member of the state Senate and House Transportation Committees, each designated one of their colleagues to serve on a steering group for the study, and I represented the Transportation Commission as its fifth member.

No legislator said to the islands--or to any other ferry-dependent community across Puget Sound--that we should "sink or swim."

No one has advocated blanket elimination of frequent user discounts.

The report will be anything but an "economic disaster" for the San Juans; it suggests feasible ways for the legislature, in coordination with the Governor's office, to settle on a stable, long-term funding stream for our ferry system, guaranteeing service levels and facilities commensurate with our needs, now and in the future.

None of us who have worked on the study has even considered rate increases approaching 100%. (The report contains no specific numerical suggestions for fare levels, recovery percentages or other measures of fiscal performance.)

No one has suggested that we not build more boats for replacement and expansion, and few doubt the need to enlarge and modernize aging terminals--although many designs are being scaled back, partly as the result of this study.

And no one I've spoken with in Olympia is talking about privatizing the ferry system, turning it over to a Halliburton-like company or somehow extracting "profits" from ferry riders.

But there are some political realities that we all need to deal with.

By now, it should be no secret that the state's stop-gap measures following the loss of funds from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (because of $30 car tabs), along with fuel prices that have escalated beyond any reasonable expectation, have resulted in insufficient support for current and future the ferry system needs. That's why the legislature, with concurrence by the Governor, commissioned this study during its 2006 session.

While the state funds all of the system's capital needs--boats, terminals and major renovations--users' fares pay part (but significantly less than all) of the operating expenses. In the fiscal year that ended last June, systemwide operating revenues from fares and concessions totaled $142 million, expenses were $193 million, and the system "lost"--or was subsidized by state funds--$51 million. Here in the San Juans, intrastate operations accounted for $19 million of that loss, equivalent to a state subsidy averaging about $11 for each person (not each vehicle) traveling to or from Anacortes or between islands.

One thing I've heard these past several months is that there's little appetite in the legislature--on either side of the aisle or from either side of the mountains--for raising the gas tax again or to increase support of the ferry system beyond the overall level of inflation in order to close the gap. Retain existing subsidy levels? Yes, many say. Add road tolls for "mega-projects" and to increase revenues? Probably. Increase ferry funding more than inflation? Not likely. That is the political reality in which we must find solutions to the ferry funding dilemma.

The JTC is meeting in Olympia on Wednesday, January 3rd, to hear a presentation of the final finance study report, and I expect to join its members along with Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald and WSF's director Mike Anderson in a discussion about what the next steps should be.

There are no easy answers, just as there are no "right" ferry fares. Ferry users know that the answer is a political one, resulting from the balance between costs that certainly need to be better controlled, service levels--how often the boats run and how large they are, the operating subsidies paid by the state's taxpayers at large and the fares collected from ferry riders. So will fares go up on average more than inflation? I'm betting they will. Will some fares go up more than others? Yes. Will that adversely impact some of our friends and neighbors and life here in the San Juans generally? Yes, just as gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon have hurt us all.

I'm under no illusion about the ill effects of higher ferry fares on users throughout the network, whether on Vashon Island, in Kitsap County, on Whidbey or closer to home. Can our legislators--who certainly never suggested we "sink or swim"--continue working to minimize those effects? You bet, and our County Council will be confronting them on this issue at every opportunity.

I could predict that lobbying in Olympia will avert the need for fare increases higher than the inflation rate. I could, but I won't.

Bob Distler is an Orcas resident

Editor's note: The opinions of Alex MacLeod, reported in the Dec. 20 edition of the Sounder which Distler finds wide of the mark, were tape recorded and reviewed before printed. The Dec. 27 guest editorial is an opinion from a private individual.

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