Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Those who voted for I-695 have no right to complain about ferry problems

This morning, the Seattle Times has a big front page article about the sad state of Washington State Ferries, which many Puget Sound communities (such as Port Townsend) depend on for tourism, transportation, and their livelihood.

In recent years, ferry fares have skyrocketed, the quality of service has decreased, and aging vessels have been pulled off their runs for repairs.

The news lately has been almost exclusively bad for entrepreneurs in coastal towns, who rely on the Evergreen State's marine highways for business.

Port Townsend, in particular, relies significantly on tourism to support its local economy. Because Port Townsend is isolated geographically on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula, its ferry link to Whidbey Island is incredibly important.

That link has been missing ever since the state was forced to remove its Steel Electric Class ferries from service in 2007 due to corroded hulls. People are understandably upset...and making no secret of their frustration.
Shop owners pin a lot of their troubles on one state agency: "The ferry system let us down," said Teresa Verraes, owner of an art shop, Artisans on Taylor.

The agency had spent years pursuing a plan to replace the 80-year-old Steel Electric boats, but it collapsed in the face of community opposition. When the boats were pulled, the only immediate backup was a smaller, passenger-only ferry.
If people in communities like Port Townsend want to know who the real culprit behind our deteriorating ferry system is, they needn't look far.

Every voter who supported Tim Eyman's Initiative 695 back in 1999 is responsible for the crisis that we're dealing with today. That includes a majority of voters in Snohomish, Island, Pierce, and Kitsap counties.

Those individuals have no right to complain about disintegrating service, let alone blame the Department of Transportation for what's happening.

Distribution of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, 1999

We the people of Washington created this mess for ourselves. We said yes to wiping out the ferry capital construction fund and gutting almost a fourth of operating revenues almost a decade ago. The Legislature (foolishly) carried out our wishes after courts struck Tim Eyman's baby down as unconstitutional.

Opponents of Initiative 695 predicted then that its passage would have dire consequences, but those warnings were largely ignored.

Now the state ferry system is chronically underfunded. It's running out of money and could face a $1 billion shortfall over the next sixteen years.

Anti-government libertarians and critics of the ferry system will argue, of course, that the state has wasted money on terminal renovations to handle increased ridership that never materialized.

However, the big reason that ridership has declined instead of increasing (as projected) is because ferry fares have been going steadily up.

And why, again, have ferry fares gone steadily up?
People stopped riding for a number of reasons, including increased telecommuting and cuts in service. But a major factor is the sharp increase in fares. On the Seattle-to-Bainbridge Island route, for example, passenger fares have jumped 81 percent since 2000, from $3.70 to $6.70.

The agency boosted fares to help make up for millions of dollars lost when voters repealed the state car-tab tax by passing Initiative 695 in 1999. The tax had provided about 22 percent of the ferry system's operating revenue and about 77 percent of its capital budget.
The following point cannot be be emphasized enough: Tax cuts have serious consequences.

The decision to eliminate the MVET has cost the Evergreen State dearly.

Our ferries are part of the common wealth. Our taxes (our pooled resources) are what comprises the common wealth. When we drain revenue from our own public services, inevitably the quality of service we can expect will greatly decline.

The squabbling and finger pointing between state officials, lawmakers, and stakeholders is both predictable and senseless.

Mismanagement didn't cause all these problems. How is the state Department of Transportation supposed to thoughtfully prepare for the replacement of its fleet when there's no money available?

It's funny how this suddenly became important after there was an issue with the boats. Prevention is the best and most cost-effective way to solve a problem. Preventative measures can't be taken, however, if no one is willing to appropriate the funding required to plan and act in advance.

If we really want to address the problems plaguing our ferry system, there is a simple solution: Restore the motor vehicle excise tax. Set it at a reasonable level and implement a new fee schedule that's fair and progressive. Allocate the funds towards ferries, Amtrak Cascades, and transit in cities across the state, from Spokane to Vancouver to the Tri-Cities to Bellingham.

The cost of gasoline is bound to continue to go up, and we should respond by increasing the availability of transit and decreasing ferry fares (especially for pedestrians and bicyclists). Coupled with the construction of a light rail backbone in Puget Sound, these investments help get people out of their cars, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, lower carbon emissions, and decrease air pollution.

We can rectify the profound mistakes made at the end of the last decade. It'll take political courage to get us back on track, but we must act. We are already paying the price in this century for years of dithering and shortsightedness.


Blogger JoAnn said...

You're right; those who voted for I695 have no right to complain about ferry problems. As a voter for I695, I'm not complaining. I also do not want to see our car tab excise fees reinacted. I do not use the ferries, therefore I have no desire to pay for them. On the very rare occasions I choose to visit an island, I pay the cost of riding a ferry whatever it is. If I can't afford it, I don't go.

However, the tone of your article suggests that what you are really saying is that those of us who make decisions that lower our cost of transportation should pay for those who choose to live and work where transportation costs are higher? If I chose to live on one side of the Puget Sound, but work on the other, I'd expect to pay for my ferry costs back and forth. However, our family has choosen to live and work on one side of the Puget Sound, thus reducing our need for such expensive modes of transportation. If you can't afford the ferry costs (whatever they be), don't force yourself to need them.

It's all about choices.

September 28, 2008 10:11 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home