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Originally published Monday, January 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Finding smoother waters for Washington State Ferries

Washington State Ferries, a critical connection among the Puget Sound's communities, is facing a budget crunch along with other state agencies, Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, notes. As chair of the state House Transportation Committee, she has worked on remedying the ferry system's perennial financial challenges and acknowledges some service will have to be cut and new revenue found to preserve it.

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If there is one enduring symbol of our state's natural beauty, it is surely Puget Sound, home to an iconic array of wildlife, terrain and waters. Puget Sound is an attraction that has drawn people to this region for centuries to live, play and do business.

The need for transportation between the Sound's numerous islands and shoreline communities gave rise to the ferry system in the 1950s. Our state's ferry system has played a historic and vital role in connecting all regions of Puget Sound, just as our state highways connect the inland communities.

Yet Washington State Ferries (WSF), despite its crucial economic and social role, has undergone serious financial duress in recent years. As chair of the state House of Representatives Transportation Committee, I have worked on this issue for several years and am here to set the record straight about what has happened. I also want to outline how we in the Legislature intend to write a fiscally responsible ferries budget during this legislative session that ensures the continued viability of the ferry system over the long run.

Let us not mince words: The Washington State Ferries budget is in tough shape — we do not have enough money to maintain existing service levels, replace aging vessels and keep terminals in proper shape. Voters eliminated the motor vehicle excise tax in 1999, devastating WSF's finances, and that critical revenue source has never been replaced. Since the passage of 2006 ferry legislation, we have worked with WSF, the governor's office and outside consultants to scrutinize the ferry budget, consider new ways of doing business, consider new revenue options and develop a long-term, sustainable plan for the ferry system.

WSF recently released a draft long-range plan that is the result of these three years of studies. It shows two potential scenarios to carry the ferry system over the next 22 years. Briefly, Plan A assumes a future service level equivalent to today's, along with investments in new vessels and terminal repairs, but this scenario predicts a $3.5 billion deficit that must be filled with new revenue. Plan B assumes a trimmed-down service level compared with today and outlines smaller capital investments, although even this scenario still leaves a $1.4 billion deficit.

The study makes clear that the system is unsustainable, and in order to balance the budget — which we must do — we have to make some unfortunate service cuts, find new revenue or do some of both. We realize either remedy will be painful and involve hardship for some ferry communities. At the same time, our job is to analyze the current situation and act as responsible stewards of state money.

As it has done throughout the fact-finding process, WSF has continued soliciting public comment through today as the draft plan is finalized and we begin considering its recommendations this session." Citizens have been vocal in their thoughts and suggestions for how best to move forward, and we legislators are listening.

The Legislature's own Ferry Policy Group, comprised of senators and representatives on the respective transportation committees, has worked closely with WSF to monitor and consult on planning, and contrary to recent rumors, the group's work will continue.

We will use the long-range plan, a separate revenue study and community input as we develop a balanced ferries budget. Our goal will be to fund a ferry system that is sustainable into the future, that adequately serves its riders and communities, and that is safe, reliable and efficient.

We have a huge task ahead of us. These are tough times, but together, we can make progress.

Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, represents the 41st District and is chair of the transportation committee in the Washington state House of Representatives.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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