I got some interesting comments from local legislators last
week, but they got bumped from a story when a couple powerful
senators got into a long-distance shouting match.
Mary Margaret Haugen, at her home on Camano Island, and Pam Roach, on a trip to Germany, had a little disagreement over who should be setting bridge tolls and ferry fares — the Legislature or Transportation Commission. That was fun, but I’d hate to waste insights from another senator, Derek Kilmer, and Reps. Christine Rolfes and Larry Seaquist. So here goes.
Rolfes said the Legislature already delineates tolls and fares through the transportation budget, “so it’s not a big deal to require us to continue to do that,” she said.
What she thinks would be ideal is a new form of ferry governance to replace the Transportation Commission, like “a citizen committee with some oversight over the ferry system or at least a group that knows a lot more about ferries and can dig into it and can advise the Legislature and the governor.”
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge citizen advisory committee is a good example. Kilmer and Seaquist love it. The members really dig into the details of the bridge budget. A couple of them border on obsessive, and drive the DOT guys nuts. So far, they’ve protected bridge users’ interests and bank accounts. Transportation Commission, sometimes grudgingly, has generally followed their recommendations. Something like that might work for the ferries.
Kilmer says there’s “great value” in a citizen advisory committee process where the people making toll recommendations are the same ones who are affected by them.
“I think they have more sensitivity about setting fares than politicians in Olympia do,” Kilmer said.
Seaquist says he keeps getting different numbers from the ferry system, that he doesn’t think it’s been forthcoming about new ferries and headquarter costs.
“I proposed the use of a ferry version of the Narrows Bridge Citizen Advisory Committee,” he said, that “would have visibility into all of the costs and ridership and so on. It would hold the hearings, make the recommendations to the Transportation Commission. We need some mechanism like the citizen advisory committee to watch what they’re spending money on and what those fares should be.”
Both Kilmer and Seaquist said there are broader ferry issues than who has the final say on fare increases, like the governor’s proposal to dramatically raise fares.
“The underlying issue here is how much does it cost to operate those ferries and what percentage of total operating costs should the riders pay?,” Seaquist said. “In my view, we are way above that ceiling already.”
He said he thinks the cap should be around 70 percent.
It was 65.4 percent in FY 2009. Preliminary numbers for FY 2010, WSF planning director Ray Deardorf said Tuesday, indicate there was a 70.5 percent recovery.
“There is general agreement among elements in Puget Sound that the ferry system is not delivering enough service,” Seaquist said. “It’s giving us too little for too much and it’s hurting our local economies. People are making job choices and home choices and school choices based on the ferries, so we need to keep those fares under control and to do that we need visibility into their budgets.”