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Monday, February 7, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

If state can't ferry passengers, it should get out of the way

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Washington State Ferries is doing the hokey-pokey on its policy toward passenger-only ferry service.

The system has had its left foot in, then its left foot out. Now that private companies are vying to provide the service, the agency, spurred by House Democrats and unions, is shaking the policy all about.

Forgive the private firms for their bad case of whiplash. Two years ago, the Legislature acceded to the recommendation of the former state ferries director, the transportation secretary and the transportation commission to get out of the passenger-only ferry service — except for between Seattle and Vashon. The Legislature rolled out the red carpet to private enterprises by passing legislation lifting restrictions on private operators within the vicinity of state ferry runs.

Seeing the public need, Kitsap Transit stepped up as a facilitator. And even after transit district voters rejected a tax for the agency to offer passenger-only ferry service, Kitsap Transit supported state permit applications by private companies and sought grants to make terminal improvements. Kitsap Ferry Co. began service between Bremerton and Seattle in August; Aqua Express started runs between Kingston and Seattle Jan. 18.

Now, Aqua Express and a third company, Mosquito Fleet, have filed competing applications with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission for permits to begin service between Seattle and the Southworth area.

But several House lawmakers have urged the commission to slow down the process in case the Legislature changes its mind — again. Last week, the ferry system released a report, commissioned by the 2004 Legislature, that proposes an about-face. It lays out a way for the ferry system to expand its Seattle-Vashon service with a jog over to Southworth, creating a triangular route. But there are two, possibly insurmountable, conditions.

First, the project would need about $3 million for terminal improvements and restoration of two boats. Even such a relatively small amount could be a tough sell when the Transportation Commission chairman testified recently the department is struggling just to maintain existing capacity.

Second, according to the report, the affected unions would have to agree to more labor flexibility, such as split shifts of four hours each or part-time positions. With that flexibility, Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald says the route's operating costs with the addition of Southworth would need less state subsidy, although some critics speculate additional fuel costs for the eight-minute crossing would put it at a net loss.

Talks between the state and the union are ongoing, and at least one union official is optimistic an agreement permitting some flexibility is possible by the end of this month.

Rewind to 2003. State officials cited the state's daunting transportation needs, the repeal of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax and voters' rejection of Referendum 51 as reasons to change ferry operations, including cutting passenger-only ferry service.

Two years later, the state is still facing daunting transportation needs even with some business support to raise transportation tax revenues.

What has happened to change MacDonald's mind? The reportedly voluntary departure of ferry director Mike Thorne, who appears to be a convenient scapegoat. Some observers say Thorne, formerly the successful Port of Portland executive director, didn't understand the "culture" of the ferry system.

Another emboldening change is that Democrats have seized control of the Senate. House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray says nothing has changed for him or the House. In each of the past two years, the House fully funded passenger-only ferries, but the formerly Republican-controlled Senate stripped the funding and forced the House to concede.

Still, Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen clearly takes a dim view of expanding the state's passenger-only ferry service. A member of the state's Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation, which cast a glaring light on the state's transportation capital needs and financial neglect, Haugen says, "There's no money."

A case might well be made to expand the state's Seattle-Vashon run to Southworth. But it needs to be measured against what provides the best service for ferry riders at the lowest cost to state taxpayers.

If that means state ferry service with union workers, fine.

But if it means private enterprise can do it as well with better value and con-venience for the water-commuting public, then the state needs to get out of the way — once and for all.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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