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Solution for state ferry system?
"Without new funding our ferry system will not survive as we know it," Gov. Chris Gregoire told Washington's legislator's as she unveiled a $3.6 billion transportation package to address the state's projected funding shortfall for its programs Tuesday morning in Olympia.
Nearly a third of the total transportation funds would be used to cover a projected $1.3 billion deficit in the ferry system.
Gregoire, in her state-of-the state message to a joint session of the Washington legislature, went on to describe how the 10-year development and operations package would be funded with a $1.50 fee on each barrel of oil produced in the state. The governor also declared the planned expenditures would create an estimated 5,500 jobs per year for transportation infrastructure.
As a fee, the proposal is a way around the two-thirds legislative vote needed to pass new taxes in the state.
"I think of it as a good down-payment on what we need to do for transportation," said House Transportation Committee Chair Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), though the governor's package only addresses operations and maintenance costs, not projects, including the construction of new ferryboats, which also create jobs, she said.
"She left the legislature with a big job of, say, do we go out to the voters with a gas tax or do we go out and try to find some other revenue stream to do projects, and which projects?" said Clibborn.
The Department of Transportation lacks a source to maintain the current level of ferry system funding going forward, according to the Connecting Washington Task Force, which released a study saying the ferry system will be underfunded by around $400 million after the 2013-2015 biennium if no new revenue source is found.
David Moseley, director Washington State Ferries, is confident, however, that Gregoire's proposal could help solve the pressing ferry problems.
"We are in a very difficult financial situation, as people have known for a number of years," said Moseley. "Fortunately for us the governor has presented a proposal that is a solution. I'm hopeful that we'll receive positive support in the legislature."
Republicans aren't sold on the proposition, saying a barrel fee is an unacceptable remedy; that the money won't be considered constitutionally protected like the gas tax, which must be used for transportation. Instead, they say, it would be swept into the general fund.
"How do we protect this money?" asked Rep. Mike Armstrong (R-Wenatchee). "We've seen examples, like the Public Works Trust Fund, that the legislature has gone in and raided. This money in no way is protected by the 18th Amendment. Any legislature could go in and, theoretically, rob this money," said Armstrong,
Rep. Charles Ross (R-Naches), believes it puts too much of the onus on the average citizen who already has the burden of high gas prices.
"I think this is going to really scare folks out there who are standing out in front of a gas pump today when they hear that," said the House minority floor leader.
"The increased tax would clearly be an added burden on the cost of manufacturing the fuels for refiners," said Frank E. Holmes, Wednesday, who is director of the Northwest Region of Western States Petroleum Association, who called the proposal "surprising and troubling."
"Raising hidden taxes on the gasoline and diesel fuel that the people of Washington state rely on is the wrong idea at the wrong time, and will cause pain at the pump for everyone living in and traveling through the state," said Charles T. Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, in a statement Tuesday.
Moseley didn't let on as to whether the ferry system has a backup plan should the package fail to pass the legislature. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there," he said.
— Scott Panitz, reporter, WNPA Olympia News Bureau