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Monday, November 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Passenger-ferry task force has more queries than answers

Seattle Times staff reporter

For more than two months, a high-powered group of legislators, public officials and citizens have been meeting to decide whether the state should be in the passenger-ferry business.

This week the 18-member group meets for the last time and plans to issue a report. But it likely will have more questions than answers:

• If the state decides to expand passenger-ferry service, should the state pay for it or contract with private operators?

• If the state cedes some of the routes to private operators, as it is expected to do, what kind of public subsidy will be involved?

• Should the Passenger-Only Ferry Task Force prioritize routes or simply give the Legislature its list of five so-called "first-tier" routes it would like to see ferries traverse?

• How much influence will the ferry unions exert in any passenger-ferry decision? The private operators don't use union labor. The potentially lucrative Southworth route could be a real sticking point.

• What will King County's role be in helping finance passenger-ferry service to Vashon Island?

The creation of the task force was ordered by the Legislature at the end of the last session, when lawmakers couldn't decide whether the state should be in the passenger-ferry business.

Three years ago the state canceled its foot ferries as a cost-cutting move, but an outcry from Vashon Island residents prompted the Legislature to continue to finance the Vashon route on a year-to-year basis.

The Legislature appointed the task force to review the most reliable and cost-effective way to provide passenger-ferry service.

The fight over ferries pitted House Transportation Committee Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, a big supporter of the so-called state triangle route, which would operate a state-funded ferry between Southworth, Vashon and downtown Seattle, against his counterpart in the state Senate, Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, a strong backer of allowing private operators to run the route. Because neither would budge, the decision was put off for a year.

A private company, Aqua Express, filed applications with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to operate a private foot ferry between Southworth and downtown Seattle. But the Legislature "froze" the applications until July 2006 while it decides what to do about passenger ferries.

Aqua Express operated a foot ferry between Kingston and downtown Seattle but stopped service for the winter because of high fuel costs and low ridership. It said it needs the Southworth route to make passenger ferries financially viable.

Jim Boldt, who represents Aqua Express, is on the task force, as is Greg Dronkert, who runs a passenger-only ferry between Bremerton and downtown Seattle.

Candidates for subsidies

While the task-force report isn't completed, the group did decide that several routes should be considered "first tier" candidates for public subsidies.

They include the four routes from Seattle to Bremerton, Kingston, Southworth and Vashon Island, and a triangle route that would connect Seattle, Southworth and Vashon.

Mike Anderson, head of Washington State Ferries, said there's no way the Legislature will finance all five routes. "Of the five potential alternatives, all five can't exist," he said.

Anderson said he supports the state operating the triangle route, and that eventually the state would like to put a car ferry between Southworth and downtown Seattle.

Anderson said the Vashon Island ferry now has a $694,000 annual subsidy, and fares cover 53 percent of the operating costs. But a triangle route from Southworth would reduce the subsidy to $536,500 and the fare-box recovery would be 70 percent. Today, he said, more than half of the Vashon passenger-ferry riders come from Southworth on the car boat and then transfer.

But Dick Hayes, head of Kitsap Transit and a committee member, supports letting private operators run the Southworth route, saying he may submit a minority report when the group issues its findings.

Kitsap Transit has succeeded in securing federal money to help finance the private operators. "The region should stick with a public-private model," he said. "The Legislature should look at some sort of plan for a couple of years that keeps the [Vashon] service going, while we put our subsidies in effect to fund partnerships."

Specifically, said Hayes, he hopes to use the federal money to buy a boat to lease to Aqua Express and to buy the dock at Kingston.

What's unclear is what kind of role King County will have in continuing the Vashon passenger ferry. The county has won $2.2 million in federal funds for capital costs, not operating costs, for passenger ferries.

Kevin Desmond, head of Metro, is a member of the task force. Metro issued a report in August on the potential of getting into the passenger-ferry business but reached no conclusion.

Several funding options

Meanwhile, the task force is looking at several alternatives:

• The state ferries continue to finance passenger-ferry service between downtown and Vashon Island and allow private operators to provide service on all other routes in Puget Sound.

• The state operates a triangle route between Southworth, Vashon and downtown Seattle, using two boats. Later, in addition to the passenger ferry, the state would shift a car ferry from its current route of Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth to provide direct service between downtown Seattle and Southworth. In the long term, the state would add two new car ferries between Vashon and Fauntleroy and between Southworth and downtown Seattle. Private operators, or a public-private partnership, would provide passenger-ferry service between Bremerton and Seattle and Kingston and Seattle. This would be partly subsidizedby a tax of King and Kitsap county residents.

• Kitsap Transit contracts with private operators to provide foot-ferry service between downtown Seattle and Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth. State and federal subsidies, and a Kitsap County tax, would help pay for the service.

• Passenger-ferry service is provided by private and public operators in a partnership managed by Washington State Ferries. Some routes would be operated by the state, some by private operators.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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