Governor signs bill to reform Washington ferry system



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Posted on June 7, 2011 at 8:56 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 7 at 8:58 PM

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Governor Gregoire signed into law a bill designed to reform the ferry system Tuesday afternoon.

It wasn’t easy. Bill sponsor Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, says the labor lobby was so powerful that it was a fight of a lifetime.

“I would say this was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever worked on and I’ve worked on a lot of legislation," said Haugen. "This was extraordinarily difficult.”

The new law phases out a benefit available to ferry workers and not to other state employees. Since the 1980’s the state has funded and operated a separate, special commission to settle labor disputes for ferry workers: the Marine Employees’ Commission (MEC). The MEC costs taxpayers $235,000 a year. Sen. Haugen says eliminating the commission is an important step toward bringing fairness to all state employees.

“It also begins to treat the ferry workers like all other state employees. Which I think is huge. Treat everybody equal,” said Haugen.

The legislation also puts a boss on every boat. There’s never been a manager onboard state ferries in Washington. Now captains will be the manager of each vessel. This is expected to cut down on overtime costs and improve on time performance.

“We’re all going to notice more efficiency. [We’ll] know if they’re not meeting certain schedules we know who to talk to: the captains,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn who sponsored the House version of the bill.

The bill also holds top ferry managers more accountable. There will more scrutiny of managers and their performance goals.

In addition, the law puts into place a steady funding source for building new boats. Beginning next fall ferry riders will pay a 25-cent surcharge on each trip for capital expenses.

During hearings leading up to the bill passage lawmakers played segments from the KING 5 Investigation: Waste on the Water. The series exposed wasteful practices such as workers gaming the system to earn extra travel time pay, excessive overtime payments to staff chief engineers, millions spent on unusable generators, an employee who coached baseball while being paid to work for the ferry system, and managers not being held accountable for many of the excesses.

Bill sponsors say the exposure, which consisted of two dozen stories over the last year, provided the political pressure to get the legislation passed. Similar efforts in the past didn’t get anywhere.

“We heard from the media that there was a problem and we heard from the citizens watching your shows, telling us listen up guys, you need to clean this up and we did. Truly this is an example of how it’s supposed to work,” said Haugen.