Opinion

We need to find solutions to preserve our ferry service | Guest Column

By JIM CORENMAN
San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee

Our life here on the islands seems to revolve around the ferries, and everyone has an opinion. Schedules are never quite what we want, costs are higher than we would like (and keep going up), and vessel maintenance is sometimes embarrassing. Changes in Coast Guard and union work rules have also resulted in schedule changes over the last couple of years.

Now we have a new challenge: The governor has asked Washington State Ferries to cut $16.9 million from its operating budget for 2011-12. This is 4 percent of WSF’s operating budget, but a 12 percent reduction in the state contribution. And the voters have spoken clearly on new taxes and increased fees: Whatever we want, we want someone else to pay for it.

WSF has responded with some budget reduction options that include systemwide service cuts, including downsizing vessels and extending the winter schedule. The impacts will be significant, and our County Council and Ferry Advisory Committee are working with other ferry-served communities and legislators to maintain current service levels. It is important that the community be involved also.

To better understand the current issues and the impacts of these changes, we first need to step back and take a look at schedules, budgets and service.

Each of our four ferry-served islands has its own unique character and differing needs. The larger islands — San Juan and Orcas — do get the most ferry traffic, but not by as much as the population would indicate. It’s also geographically inconvenient that the longest route is also the busiest. And, of course, we need to balance mainland service with interisland service. Interisland service is what binds our community together, while the mainland service keeps our economy running.

The other side of the scheduling issue is resources: boats, crews and fuel are needed, which requires funding. Labor for boats and terminals, fuel and maintenance get 95 percent of the operational funding; overhead is only 5 percent. Systemwide, two-thirds of this operating budget comes from fares and the rest comes from the state. Downsound routes pay a higher percentage from fares, 91.6 percent on the Bainbridge route, while our fare contribution is among the lowest at 43.1 percent — reflecting, in part, that this is indeed our only way home.

And budgets are limited. When the MVET (motor vehicle excise tax, the “car tag” fee) went away 10 years ago, ferries lost its major source of sustainable income, which the Legislature has never replaced.

So what can we do to help ensure that we get the ferry service that we need? In one critical aspect, our needs are different than anywhere else: aside from airplane or private boat, the ferries are our only transportation option. But funding is limited, and asking for additional funds for our service means someone else gets less. We need to be respectful of this.

Plan to attend the meeting on Dec. 14, 5:30- 7 p.m. in the County Council chambers in Friday Harbor. If you cannot attend in person you can watch by video and submit questions via email, see the info at www.sanjuanco.com/fac. This is a meeting with WSF, and while it is always tempting to blame them for everything, we suggest that this is counter-productive.

The goal is to preserve our service, and this cannot be done without the governor’s and the Legislature’s help. In this respect, we and WSF are on the same side of the table. Being a state agency, WSF cannot lobby for more funding, but we can. And if we can find a way to speak about solutions and not simply criticize, then we can have a very large effect.

— Jim Corenman lives on San Juan Island.

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