Senate transportation budget would keep ferry service intact

OLYMPIA — The state Senate Transportation Committee released a budget proposal Wednesday that would preserve ferry service, complete the building of two new boats, re-power another and possibly delay toll increases on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The Senate would spend $8.7 billion in 2013-15 — $5.3 billion on construction and $3.4 billion for operations and debt payments.

“When I joined the Senate in January, ensuring efficient use of bridge tolls and preserving ferry runs and services were two of my main transportation goals,” said Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, who serves on the Transportation Committee with Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

If approved by the full Senate, the proposal would then be considered by the House of Representatives, which is scheduled to announce its own proposal Thursday at 10 a.m.

The Department of Transportation, facing dwindling gas tax revenues, told Washington State Ferries to propose $5 million in cuts for the 2013-15 biennium, which begins July 1. In September, WSF proposed to reduce sailings, including midday and late-night trips between Bremerton and Seattle. The Senate’s proposed $492 million ferry operating budget would preclude eliminating any service. It includes $11.8 million to cover the cost of increased crew sizes ordered last year by the Coast Guard.

“Service reductions cannot be the default suggestion for solving the funding needs of the system,” Schlicher said. “Ferries are a public service and critical part of our transportation infrastructure. We rely on them to get to and from work, to move merchandise, to travel to receive vital medical care. Ferries are a critical component of everyday life, not an extravagance to be curtailed when times are tough.” The proposed $251 million ferry capital budget includes $107 million to complete new 144-car ferries Tokitae and Samish, and $22 million to convert the Hyak to a hybrid propulsion system. Delivery of the Tokitae is expected next spring, followed by the Samish in early 2015. They will enable two 87-car ferries that are pushing 60 years old to be retired.

Washington State Ferries plans to retrofit the 144-car Hyak’s diesel propulsion system with a hybrid one. Hybrid ferries charge a bank of batteries with their diesel engines. Like a hybrid car, they can operate on electric for short trips. Over the remaining 19 years of the ferry’s life, it would save 4.5 million gallons of fuel and reduce tons of emissions.

Schlicher’s legislation to cap administrative costs on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge at 2 percent of all expenditures and forcing DOT to “lean manage” down to that level was killed, but he got a $2.9 million reduction in the tolling division’s administration and overhead written into the budget. He hopes that will prevent a 25-cent, across-the-board toll increase planned for July 1.