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Tacoma, Southworth Ferry Routes Discontinued; Fauntleroy Sailings Reduced

Did that headline scare you? Good. I’m glad. That was the hoped-for effect.

No, it hasn’t actually happened... yet. Which probably qualifies the above headline as the worst sort of sensationalist journalism, for which I apologize. But only a little. Because even shrieking "Fire!" in a crowded theater is permissible if you have legitimate reason to believe it’s about to happen. But before I get to any legitimate reporting, let me indulge in a little more sensationalism while I have your attention.

All the really good scary stories have some basis in fact. The "sensationalist" headline above is a prediction of the downstream results of statements recently made by Washington State Transportation Sec. Paula Hammond in a presentation to the Senate and House transportation committees. Essentially, Hammond said that if a transportation budget is not produced by the state legislature, something the legislature has failed to do for several years, Washington State Ferries would have to eliminate six of its eleven routes and reduce service on two others. The Vashon routes were all on the list.

What would be the effect of such a thing on Vashon? To help your imagination along, it might serve to think in terms verbalized by Kari Ulatoski, erstwhile Chair of the Vashon Maury Island Community Council Transportation Committee and current member of both the Ferry Community Partnership and Vashon Island Ferry Advisory Committee: "When you look at it, so many of us who came to Vashon and to Kitsap came here because they couldn’t afford at the time to live in other areas. ... and that I attribute to the State of Washington because had they not taken over the ferry system in 1950, so this has been going on for 60 years, and made it reasonable and made it inviting we would not have the population we have over there. It is the main transport across the sound from a number of different places."

In short, the viability of living on Vashon for most people is predicated on the availability of workable transportation at more or less reasonable prices. Minus that predicate, Vashon is no longer livable for a significant portion of the Island population. If that happens, what’s the downstream effect? About now you should be considering the value of your home, your ability to get to your employment, what would happen to local Island businesses facing large losses of patronage, the prices of goods and services on Vashon, and just about everything else that has to do with the viability of living on Vashon. It’s that simple.

How did we get here? I-695, passed in 1999, drastically slashed car tab fees and put a dent in about 7% of Washington State’s tax revenue. Major portions of that revenue were targeted for transportation expenditures, and the clock has been running down on available funds for transportation statewide ever since. The ferry system is as much a part of the state’s transportation system as roads and bridges. The legislature has, according to Ulatoski, been "applying Band-Aids" to all transportation issues for several years and has been unable to put together a workable transportation budget. Recently the problem has been exacerbated by the 2010 passage of initiative 1053 requiring a supermajority vote in the state legislature to raise taxes. The required unanimity of purpose amongst legislators necessary for forward progress on transportation budgetary issues has yet to appear. There are currently two bills in the Legislature, Senate Bill 6455 and House Bill 2660, which, if passed, would at least address the state’s transportation operation and maintenance funding needs, but passage does not appear likely at the moment. Other sources of funding for operation and maintenance are about to run dry. When the money runs out, ferries will begin to shut down.

Not until 2013 is a bill scheduled which would hopefully address the need of Washington State Ferries to replace six boats over the next 15 years.

Unfortunately, Vashon Islanders appear to have become apathetic to the looming threat to the ferry system. It is possible that Islanders are failing to distinguish between mere rate increases and the actual destruction of the ferry system as we know it. Lobbying to keep ferry fares low is an almost continuous activity and may have resulted in a certain selective deafness to the current threat.

Additionally, in a relatively short period of time, the island has faced a number of high profile issues: Glacier Gravel, Marine Recovery Area, Critical Areas Ordinance, and most recently the Tacoma Smelter Plume and the fear generated by discussions of widespread arsenic and lead contamination in the soil. The Island is developing a sort of reputation for having a Disaster Du Jour. A sort of "leave it to the activists" mentality appears to be developing as a mindset in many Islanders at a time when ferry services are facing the greatest threat in their history and a widespread grassroots movement is perceived as a desperately needed remedy.

This coming Monday, February 20th, Kari Ulatoski is set to speak to the Vashon Maury Island Community Council on this issue. Islanders are encouraged to turn out en masse at the council meeting to become more familiar with the issue and to become actively involved in petitioning the Legislature in every way possible.