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Northwest Voices

Seattle Times letters to the editor

January 29, 2009 at 4:00 PM

Washington State Ferries

Jim Bates / The Seattle Times

The Spokane pulls into the Edmonds ferry dock.

Fix the four, don’t sell them

Editor, The Times:

I don’t remember this being proposed before [“Deal to sell ferries on hold,” Times, Local News, Jan. 28]. Each of the three steel-electric Illahee Class boats were rebuilt, including the deck cabins, in 1987 for $2.7 million and are now possibly being sold or scrapped.

The Klickitat apparently has cracks in the hull from a very rough route, but if the other three were faulty after the new plates were added, surely our quality Todd Shipyard could replace the hulls less expensively than purchasing new boats.

The Illahee Class boats are medium size of proven design and quality. The original subchaser engines have been replaced with reliable Finnish Warsellas engines. It makes more sense to replace the hulls than to replace entire boats.

— Bob Engstrom, Bainbridge

Less is not more

I can’t let the guest commentary by state Rep. Judy Clibborn of Mercer Island [“Finding smoother waters for Washington ferries,” Jan. 26] pass without comment. Her piece begins by saying, “If there is one enduring symbol of our state’s natural beauty, it is surely Puget Sound. …” It then goes on to talk about the ferry system.

I would add that if there is one enduring symbol of the ineptness and malaise of our state government, it is Clibborn’s column. Seldom have so many words been used to say so little other than get prepared for a disappointing result from our state government.

According to Clibborn, the House of Representatives Transportation Committee has “scrutinized,” “hired consultants,” “considered,” “solicited,” “listened,” “worked closely,” “monitored,” “consulted on” and “develop[ed] a long-term, sustainable plan for the ferry system.” For the next 22 years, the plan is no change from today or less than today.

Yet, the committee’s goal is to “adequately serve its riders and communities.” It remains to be seen what they describe as “adequate,” but based on today’s standards, the bar will be set quite low.

Are we paying their salaries and paying for their consultants to maintain the status quo, or less? I think our expectations should be higher.

The ferry system is not only an icon of our region; it is the lifeline of many of our communities. It controls the rate of growth and prosperity of an important portion of our state. Restrict it and people and commerce are less willing to move. Open it up and, not only do people move, but so do energy, creativity and jobs.

For those of us who have been in the transportation business, having a monopoly and passengers lined up for hours is a problem we would love to be able to solve. It’s what we live for. If we couldn’t solve it, the government would be all over our backs. But for a government-run system, it is an inconvenience to be shouldered by the passengers.

Nowhere in Clibborn’s comments was there any mention of tackling the problems brought by the elimination of the motor-vehicle tax or some of the much-touted, embedded high costs of ferry operation. We don’t need people who cave in to these situations and suggest that less is better. We need problem solvers and leaders.

I guarantee that if Mercer Island were still served by ferries alone, Clibborn would be paddling her canoe to Seattle as fast as she could to escape from her neighbors.

— Bill Clapp, Seattle

Put aside decades-old neglect

As a Seattle commuter from Kitsap County, I appreciate the attention you are giving to the ferry system’s current budget struggle and wish to comment on Judy Clibborn’s Jan. 26 commentary.

Clibborn said “voters eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax in 1999, devastating WSF’s (Washington State Ferries) finances, and that critical revenue source has never been replaced.” While Initiative 695 was passed by voters, it was subsequently ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. The state Legislature voluntarily passed it into law, missing the opportunity to make hard decisions about balanced transportation budgets. It is time to stop blaming I-695.

I believe the most important action, resulting from the recently-released, long-range plan, should be to consider this a “wake-up call” to put aside decades-old neglect toward the ferry system by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and fund it just as you do other vital state highways.

The state constitution provides five definitions of “state highways,” the fifth being “operations of ferries, which are part of any public highway, county road or city street.” Just as the Legislature must fund bridges and roads, they must adequately fund the ferry system.

Clibborn said that the “study makes clear that the system is unsustainable, and in order to balance the budget — which we must do — we have to make some unfortunate service cuts, find new revenue or do some of both.” In response to this statement, I urge that we also consider the sustainability of the environment and the role ferries play in lowering air pollution by reducing vehicle-trip miles.

As a resident of a ferry community, I would be willing to pay higher taxes to subsidize ferry service, but would hope that if this were to be implemented, out-of-state-residents’ vehicles be charged a higher rate to travel on the ferries.

Please don’t expect a greater level of sacrifice from ferry communities than you would from other areas of the state. The ferries must be funded by the state, and not passed off to counties as unfunded mandates.

Clibborn says the Legislature “will use the long-range plan, a separate revenue study and community input as we develop a balanced ferries budget.” I strongly encourage we consider the long-range plan only as a summary of the challenges to be addressed and not as a document presenting viable solutions. Neither Plan A nor Plan B are realistic. It’s time to consider bridges from the Kitsap Peninsula to east Puget Sound — they’ve proven effective in Clibborn’s own district (Mercer Island) and could work well on this side of the Sound.

Please do away with the “Buy Washington” laws that result in the ferry system paying much more than necessary for new ferries. This might enable the ferry system to qualify for millions of dollars in federal aid like Sound Transit receives.

Clibborn says the Legislature’s goal “will be to fund a ferry system that is sustainable into the future, that adequately serves its riders and communities, and that is safe, reliable and efficient.” I couldn’t agree more.

— Cathy Ridley, Kingston

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