Opinion

County Council must make ferry matters among its highest priorities | Guest Column

By ALEX MACLEOD

It has probably come as something of a surprise to many people that it now costs 7.5 percent more to get a vehicle from one island in the county to another. And this isn’t one of those increases like “peak season” surcharges that we can sidestep if we use ferries enough to justify buying a multi-trip ticket.

No, this is a flat-out increase, the largest in the WSF system this year. It was one of several proposed this fall by the state’s Transportation Commission, which sets highway and bridge tolls and ferry fares. Another was to create a 10 percent summer “surcharge” on the existing 25 percent “peak season” (mid-May to mid-October) surcharge. Beneath it all was a 2.5 percent general fare increase.

The additional 5 percent increase on interisland fares was proposed under the guise of a concept called “tariff route equity,” developed after state ferries lost its biggest single chunk of state funding when voters approved Initiative 695 in 1999. The idea was to create a logic for raising fares to start making up for the lost state revenue. All ferry users were to contribute equally to WSF’s fixed operating costs, and proportionally based on travel time and space used.

The impact of “tariff route equity” (TRE) was that fares from Anacortes to the San Juans and Sidney rose half-again more than the system’s average. We didn’t like it, especially when service also was cut, but we've lived with it. The final step left in the TRE fare-increase process was on our interisland route.

However, a little over two years ago, literally in the dead of night, the Legislature confiscated more than a million dollars a year in gas taxes collected in the county that otherwise would have stayed in the county for road projects. It’s money we were due because our county is the only one with no state highways — other than our ferry connections — and therefore doesn’t get any state highway funds, even though we pay the same gas taxes as everyone in the state.

What did the Legislature do with our road money? It dumped it into the ferry system’s general operating fund to help keep systemwide fare increases lower than they otherwise might have been. The benefit to us: almost nothing.

How much money are we talking about? Well over $1 million a year.

What did the County Council do when these recent fare-increases were proposed? Astonishingly, it wrote a letter to the Transportation Commission objecting only to imposing the summer surcharge on commercial vehicles. It was silent on the issue of the extra interisland increase, even though the county already is contributing $1 million-plus a year more than any other county to ferry operations.

This lack of council advocacy fits a sad pattern. Two years ago, when the Transportation Commission wanted to raise fares 4 percent despite the governor and Legislature’s 2.5 percent recommendation, the council’s letter to the commission said it had no problem with an increase up to 4 percent. Concerned county residents quickly distributed petitions calling for the increases to be held to 2.5 percent. A couple of thousand signatures later, the commission fell back to the 2.5 percent increase.

The only time the council has taken strong action was when it banished me from the county’s Ferry Advisory Committee, turned the committee from an independent voice on ferry issues into a stepchild of the council and assigned its most conflict-averse member to chair it. The results, sadly, have been predictable.

Can strong advocacy from elected officials make a difference? Well, Kitsap County’s legislative delegation wrote a strongly worded objection to the entire summer surcharge proposal and the commission, with only Bob Distler of Orcas and a commissioner from Eastern Washington dissenting, dropped the proposal.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, who as a council member in 2008 promised “to keep (Gov. Gregoire’s) feet to the fire” about our disappeared Capron funds, and our two legislative representatives (Quall and Morris) sent nothing to the commission, though Ranker told me in an e-mail that he had expressed “concerns” in conversation with various state and county officials about the interisland and summer-surcharge proposals. (It should be noted that Ranker also was the council member who engineered the council’s letter that endorsed the commission’s proposed 4 percent fare increase.)

It is way past time for the council to make ferry matters among its highest priorities, to inform itself, and to advocate strongly and clearly on behalf of our interests. It could start by demanding that the lost Capron funds either be returned to the county or, at the very least, be credited toward lowering our interisland fares rather than used to make up for overall ferry financing.

It should also undo its neutering of the Ferry Advisory Committee. The council clearly needs a group of citizens devoted to looking out for our interests and able to speak with a voice separate and in addition to the council’s, which is what the state law creating the ferry committees envisioned. This, after all, was the group that galvanized opposition to the proposal a few years ago to shorten the term of multi-ride tickets, mobilizing hundreds of island residents to successfully voice their opposition. In their annoyance with me and their desire to control everything, the council threw away an important community asset. It should now restore it.

Finally, the council should begin lobbying the governor not to reappoint Distler to the Transportation Commission when his term expires in a little more than a year from now. Bob has shown himself over and over to believe that ferry users should be treated as the first solution to ferry funding. As the commission’s self-anointed ferry “expert,” he has put himself in a position to cause the people of this county, in particular, real harm. The council should make sure the governor knows that.

— Alex MacLeod lives on Shaw Island. He is retired managing editor of The Seattle Times, and former chairman of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee.

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