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Friday, June 1, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vashon Islanders symbolize love-hate relationship with ferries as they turn 50

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Today, as Washington State Ferries celebrates its 50th anniversary, Vashon Island resident Willem Maas will be there for the party, filled with mixed emotions.

The 70-year-old Vashon representative to the ferry-advisory committee plans to be on Colman Dock, celebrating along with Gov. Gary Locke and Ivar's Dancing Clams. He'll honor the ferry system for the things he loves: its lifeline to his Vashon Island home, the restful rides across Puget Sound.

Then he'll corner some dignitaries and harangue them about not fixing those things about the ferries he hates: the unreliability, breakdowns, long waits. And all those problems despite fare increases - including one that starts Sunday.

In the Puget Sound area, we have a love-hate relationship with our ferries.

We take pride in having the largest ferry system in the country, with 29 boats carrying 27 million people a year to 20 ports of call. We show them off to visitors - the ferries are among the state's top five tourist attractions.

And we've written books, essays, even poems about ferries. (By comparison, it's doubtful that any one has been - or ever will be - inspired to draft odes to Interstate 5.)

On the other hand, we're so fed up with so many things about the system that we've coined the term "ferry rage."

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Vashon Island, where the fiercely independent residents helped shape the ferry system, were shaped by it and engage in a passionate affair with their only means of transport off the island.

It's been their outlet and their shield, a way to connect with the mainland while keeping their rural isolation.

Days of Mosquito Fleet

A century ago, hundreds of privately owned small boats buzzed around Puget Sound, delivering people, mail, milk and freight, earning the collective name Mosquito Fleet.

Then passenger steamers and privately owned automobile ferries came into use. The most notable of these was Black Ball Lines, which had swallowed most of its competitors by the 1930s. Owned by Alexander Peabody, the company had 23 vessels sailing 15 routes.

After World War II, costs went up while fares were regulated by the state. In 1947, a labor strike shut down the system for more than a week, stranding 10,000 commuters.

In 1948, after Peabody asked the state to allow a 30 percent fare increase and the state came came back with only 10 percent, he shut down the ferry system for more than a week in protest.

True to feisty form, Vashon Islanders banded together and established their own ferry fleet (actually, two boats). The operation was so haphazard that the general manager was the ticket taker, recalls Ted Olsen, 71, a retired ferry captain from Vashon who worked as a deckhand for the Vashon fleet. (Bainbridge, too, chartered its own boats. The San Juan Islands chartered small boats and planes.)

So frustrated were they by Peabody that when the Black Ball president announced plans to resume service to Vashon, island residents refused to let his boat dock.

"They went down with pitchforks and all that," says Glen Willers, 84, a former ferry captain from Vashon.

The Vashon fleet and uprising sent a clear message to the state: Even if people were divided over whether they wanted government to take over, "they didn't want Peabody ruling their lives," says historian Alan Stein, author of a just-published book, "Safe Passages: The Birth of Washington State Ferries."

"It showed how ticked off the public was, especially from an islander's perspective."

The state got the message. On June 1, 1951, it took over the ferry system for $4.9 million.

Many assumed the ferries were temporary. The permanent solution, they thought, would be cross-sound bridges.

This disturbed Vashon Islanders to no end.

At that time, continuing to this day, most Vashon Islanders loved the ferry for the very opposite of what it is intended to do. Which is to say, they love the ferries for not bringing more people to their rural abode.

Bridges would negate what they loved most about their home, a place where the population has risen only a little more than half as much as the 15 percent in all of King County, but whose longtime residents routinely lament that they no longer know everyone on the island.

"If you had a bridge, the island would've built up a lot more - look at Mercer Island," Olsen says. "The ferries keep our moat in place. They keep the crowds away."

Still, the Legislature starts talking about cross-Sound bridges every 10 years or so. As recently as 1992, when a bridge was proposed from Vashon to Burien's Seahurst area, more than 2,000 islanders, some wearing "No Bridge" T-shirts, showed up at a hearing to shoot down the idea.

But they've also paid a price for their reliance on the ferries.

While they're no longer subject to the whims of one private owner, they are subject to the fancies of a potentially more fickle proprietor: fellow voters.

In 1999, state voters approved Initative 695, drastically cutting the motor vehicle excise tax that provides virtually all the ferry system's money for capital improvements and a quarter of its operating budget.

I-695 was declared unconstitutional, but the Legislature passed a similar law. As a result, the ferry system cut management and administrative staff and reduced services (including midday runs on the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route serving south Vashon Island).

On Sunday, it's raising ticket prices by an average of 20 percent, so fares will cover 80 percent of the ferry system's operating costs. (Typically, fares cover 22 percent of operating costs on public transit nationwide.)

Vashon hard-hit

Vashon residents were among the hardest hit. Their passenger-only ferry (along with Bremerton's passenger-only run) earns the least amount of its operating budget from fares - about 30 percent. Vashon's passenger-only fares will rise 20 percent, and a $1 surcharge will be added each way.

In February, Vashon Islanders chartered two boats to carry 250 people to Olympia to protest the impending fare increases.

Finally, many came to accept it.

"I'm OK with it," says Maas, the Vashon resident who serves on the state ferry committee. "It would be like putting a toll on Snoqualmie Pass or the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. People using it should pay tolls.

"But we're not OK with not seeing much improvements in other areas," he says. "We've done our bit. We've agreed to the fare increases. We've created a significant source of funding. But we aren't seeing the ferries get more efficient."

They also wonder whether these - and future - fare increases will decimate their way of life.

"This will have an impact on who can live on Vashon," says Lori Gustavson, a lawyer from Vashon Island who was arrested in 1998 while protesting the inadequacy of the passenger-only ferry service from Vashon. "The 5:30 a.m. boat used to be full of laborers. I rarely see that now."

Between rising property values, taxes and fares, Olsen, the former ferry captain, worries that people may have to move off the island to continue working their Seattle or Tacoma jobs.

As for Maas and other Vashon Islanders worried about the ferries' future, their next fight is to ensure the survival of the system they love and hate.

"We need to fight to make it an important part of the transportation mix in Puget Sound," Maas says. "We're not going to build our way out of the traffic mess."

Janet I. Tu can be reached at 206- 464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

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