Voters in Washington are open to increasing statewide taxes to ensure that the state’s iconic ferry system can rebound from decades of austerity measures and underfunding, a poll recently conducted for the Northwest Progressive has found.
51% of likely 2022 voters surveyed by Public Policy Polling for NPI two months ago said they would support increasing the fees they pay annually to renew their vehicles’ car tabs by ten dollars to provide Washington State Ferries with stable, dedicated funding. 44% said they were opposed, while 6% were not sure.
51% might not sound like a large percentage, but as always, context matters. This question voters were asked was whether they’d support rescuing ferries with a revenue mechanism that many have voted repeatedly to cut when given the opportunity to do so by Tim Eyman, the state’s dishonest, well known purveyor of destructive initiatives, who is fiercely opposed to using vehicle fees and motor vehicle excise taxes to fund multimodal transportation infrastructure.
The repeated passage of Eyman’s deceitfully worded ballot measures has left many reporters and legislators with the impression that voters are totally, unequivocally opposed to any car tab increase, regardless of the purpose for doing so. But the finding we’re releasing today shows that when voters understand how their dollars will be invested, a majority are willing to pay.
It just goes to show, once again, that the answers you get depend on the questions you ask. Voters appreciate understanding where their tax dollars go.
Here’s the exact text of the question we asked and the answers we received:
QUESTION: Washington State Ferries lacks stable, dedicated funding to fund its operations and purchase new ferryboats, which has resulted in persistent crew and boat shortages, maintenance problems, and canceled sailings. Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose increasing the fees paid when you renew your car tabs every year by ten dollars to provide Washington State Ferries with stable, dedicated funding?
- Support: 51%
- Strongly support: 25%
- Somewhat support: 26%
- Oppose: 44%
- Somewhat oppose: 13%
- Strongly oppose: 31%
- Not sure: 6%
Our survey of 909 likely 2022 Washington State voters was in the field from Wednesday, November 10th through Thursday, November 11th, 2021.
It utilizes a blended methodology, with automated phone calls to landlines (50%) and text message answers from cell phone only respondents (50%).
The poll was conducted by Public Policy Polling for the Northwest Progressive Institute and has a margin of error of +/- 3.3% at the 95% confidence interval.
Prior to 2000, in the days before Eyman’s I‑695 was foolishly implemented by Governor Gary Locke and the Legislature, vehicle fees provided a significant amount of funding for Washington State Ferries, as the 40th District’s legislative delegation observed in an October 5th letter to their constituents:
The passage of I‑695 in 1999 resulted in a WSF loss of approximately 25% of its dedicated operating budget and 75% of its dedicated capital. Consequently, no new vessels were built for an entire decade, 2000–2010. This building drought has saddled WSF with an aging fleet. The 2040 Long Range Plan strategy calls for robust vessel replacement over the next 19 years to maintain current service levels. Additionally, WSF has consistently been underfunded for vital vessel maintenance and preservation work.
– Representative Debra Lekanoff, Representative Alex Ramel, and Senator Liz Lovelett (all D‑40th District: Bellingham/Whatcom County, San Juan County, and Skagit County)
“Ferry operations, budgeted at $541 million in 2021–23, aren’t massively subsidized,” noted veteran Seattle Times reporter Mike Lindblom in a November 22nd story on Washington State Ferries’ funding crisis.
“Drivers and passengers cover 75% to 80% through fares, which increased last month. Nonusers spent $102.6 million toward ferry operations in 2019–21, equivalent to 1.33 cents per gallon of gas tax and 1% of license fees. Another $141 million in federal COVID-relief money backfilled a recent $100 million loss of ticket sales. Boats and facilities will receive $505 million in 2021–23, predominantly state and federal dollars from nonpassengers.”
Before 2021’s mass cancellations, as Lindblom’s story notes, the Senate had floated putting $200 million into ferry operations and $1.24 billion for vessels, terminals, and electrification. But WSF’s needs go beyond that.
“I think we have to consider more,” House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey (D‑27th District: Tacoma) told Lindblom.
“Obviously the struggle is, it’s not the only thing out there.”
Representative Fey is correct on both counts. Our transportation needs are substantial. But the last two years have demonstrated that WSF’s strategy of limping along and relying on fare revenue to pay the costs associated with running ferries isn’t sustainable. A diversified long-term funding model is needed.
What should that funding model be? It’s a question legislators will undoubtedly be thinking about this afternoon as the House and Senate Transportation committees hold work sessions to examine Washington’s mobility challenges.
Last month, Governor Inslee asked legislators to put more money into our ferries.
“Inslee’s proposed 2021–2023 capital budget for Washington State Ferries represents a 26% increase ($131 million), compared with the current two-year budget ($505 million),” Andrew Engelson noted last week in a piece for Crosscut.
“If unspent money from the 2019–2021 biennium is added to that figure, Inslee’s ferry system capital budget represents a 44% boost to be spent on new ferries and terminals. This includes $91 million that’s part of Inslee’s new climate agenda, which would pay for two additional electric hybrid ferries and terminal electrification.”
The governor’s proposal is a good starting point.
But especially given that fare revenue will not work as a crutch for another twenty years, we must do more. Ferries need at least one stable source of dedicated funding to recover from decades of austerity. And there aren’t a lot of revenue mechanisms readily available to legislators that meet that criteria.
Thanks to our polling, though, we know there’s at least one approach that a majority of voters are willing to accept: raising vehicle fees by a modest amount to allow WSF to deal with its staffing problems and capital construction needs.