OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to transform the ferry system from a state-only operation to a regional ferry district with state subsidies, giving local counties taxing and operational power.
Lawmakers, ferry riders, and Ferry Advisory Committee members tell KING 5 the plan to tax residents in the district has a slim chance of getting through the legislature.
"I think the ferry caucus will gather and propose an alternative solution," said Rep. Larry Sequist, D-Gig Harbor. "I don't see this as a viable basis for moving forward. At least it gets the issue out for public discussion, but (her proposal) doesn't address issues like accountability and constructing new ferries. Instead it focuses on a device - a ferry district - that politically probably doesn't have a chance."
In an announcement Thursday, Gregoire said the change is needed to help bring revenue to the ferry system, which has been bleeding money for the last decade. In 1999, voters approved Initiative 695, which limited the state's motor vehicle excise tax.
Gregoire said the ferry system has lost more than $1.2 billion in revenue since then.
"It's over folks. You've got to find a solution. If you don't like my idea, I accept that. What I can't accept is we walk out of here with another band-aid," said Gregoire.
Gregoire's plan calls for a new ferry taxing district that includes all seven western Washington counties served by the nation's largest ferry system. District board members would be elected in those areas, and some would be appointed by the governor. The counties are Kitsap, Clallam, Jefferson, Island, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, King, and Pierce.
"Ferries are a regional transportation system, not a county system," said ferry commuter and Ferry Advisory Committee member Skip Olmstead. "There are a lot of ways to economize before we get to such drastic measures."
Fauntleroy Ferry Advisory Committee member Bruce Butterfield says it's good to get ideas out there, but this one probably won't fly.
"I think it's at least worth looking into," said Butterfield. "But it will be difficult to sell the concept of taxing non-ferry users (in the ferry district counties). The ferries are important for all of us because it's part of the community and commuter network."
The plan also calls for a state subsidy, but the amount is not yet known.
The proposed plan was born of recommendations from the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA), a national organization of passenger vessel owners and operators. The group studied the state's ferry system and compared it to six systems from the U.S. and Canada -- systems that included privately owned, publicly owned and mixtures of the two.
In 2010, the KING 5 Investigators exposed millions of dollars of waste of taxpayer dollars and a lack of accountability within the ferry system in an ongoing investigation, "Waste on the Water". The Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary, Paula Hammond, told KING 5 the PVA was asked to make the recommendations as a result of the stories.
Washington state's ferry system is the largest in the nation, making more than 180,000 trips, carrying 23 million passengers and 10 million vehicles annually.
But, it has long been in search of more stable financing. After losing car-tab revenue, lawmakers have transferred millions of dollars from other areas. The system has also cut services and raised fares.
Gregoire says the ferry system still faces a roughly $900 million shortfall over the next decade.
Some ferry riders said the plan is an unfair way for the governor to bypass state law which prevents her from increasing taxes. A ferry district would not have to abide by that law; it could tax at whatever level it sees fit.
"It's not really fair, especially when we have all these other taxes that we're paying," said ferry rider Alison Forbes of Kingston.
"I think they need to work harder and sharpen their pencils a little bit more. I think there are other solutions," said ferry rider Ann Pearl of Bainbridge.
Gregoire's plans would require action by the state Legislature, which is scheduled to convene its 105-day regular session next Monday. If approved, she thinks the ferry district could be operational by 2013.
"The ferry leadership has never been held accountable for how we got into this mess. It's up to the legislature and the citizensto put together a better plan," said Seaquist.