Sunday, February 4, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kitsap County votes again on foot-ferry tax

Seattle Times staff reporter

Four years after Kitsap County voters soundly rejected a plan to tax themselves for passenger-ferry service, the county's transit agency is trying again.

Proposition 1 on Tuesday's ballot asks voters to increase their sales tax three-tenths of a cent — what transit director Dick Hayes calls a penny on a latte — to finance foot ferries from the Kitsap Peninsula to downtown Seattle.

Opponents say the cost is too high and the service would benefit too few people. Supporters say passenger ferries are needed to serve the growing Kitsap communities and take cars off the roads.

The state Department of Revenue said the proposal would increase taxes to a typical Kitsap County household by $59 a year.

The vote is being closely watched by King County, which in November put forth its own plan for a passenger-ferry triangle route from Seattle to Vashon Island to Southworth.

King County officials say they don't want to compete with Kitsap County and if the tax increase passes, they likely will bow out.

The issue of passenger ferries became critical four years ago when the state Legislature said it was getting out of the foot-ferry business, extending the Vashon route only until local government took over.

A private company, Aqua Express, offered passenger-ferry service from Kingston to downtown Seattle until October 2005, when low ridership and high fuel costs prompted it to abandon the route.

Hayes said three things have changed since Kitsap County voters rejected foot ferries in 2003: Voters then thought the state would rush in and provide the service, but that isn't going to happen. It became clear that the private sector can't run the service without public assistance. And this measure, unlike the last one, doesn't increase the motor-vehicle excise tax.

"We think things have changed enough it's possible to win this election," said Hayes, who last year lost his fight to shrink the Kitsap County taxing district so only the urban areas — thought to be more supportive — would vote in the election.

He said the plan calls for fares about $1 more each way than what is charged by Washington State Ferries. Eventually, the agency would like to have passenger-ferry service from Kingston, Southworth, Bremerton and Port Orchard to downtown Seattle.

Bill Cairns, a retired Bainbridge Island teacher who opposes the measure, said the sales tax is regressive. "Ten million will be sucked out of our economy so less than 2 percent of the people can ride them," he said of the passenger ferries.

"We're letting Washington State Ferries escape from their responsibility for extending the highways."

According to the Kitsap plan, if a foot ferry is to succeed, government must cover a minimum of 20 percent of the operating costs and all capital costs, such as boats and docks. It would be financed through the sales tax (which would bring in about $10 million a year), ferry fares and federal funds.

The Legislature ordered the state Department of Transportation to sell the Chinook and Snohomish passenger ferries, with the money going to an account that could be used by counties to operate passenger ferries.

One caveat is that private operators can't be used on the routes and they must operate with union labor.

Hayes said Kitsap County is willing to forfeit the money because it wants to contract with private companies. He said the routes would eventually be unionized.

The first step, Hayes said, will be to build a dock in downtown Seattle. The county has been talking to the city about Pier 57. It also needs to build a dock in Southworth.

What the Kitsap County plan doesn't deal with is Vashon Island, considered a money-loser by the state, which nevertheless continues to fund it until a local government takes over.

Hayes said one possibility is for Kitsap to contract with King County to provide the service.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or

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