Hard decisions ahead for the ferries after passage of I-976

Washington passes a new budget every other year. During even numbered years, that budget is revised to reflect changes in costs, revenue and priorities. While I-976 is being held up in the courts, Washington’s Legislature is assuming that the tax cuts will go into place and will be adjusting the budget accordingly. They will cut back on some spending and shift money around from revenue that’s not affected by the initiative. Factors that weigh into this adjustment process include:I 976 cuts affect about 18 percent of WSDOT’s revenue.

Some projects haven’t gone forward as planned, making money available to cover shortfalls.

Redirecting funding from other taxes and fees is subject to limitations. For example almost all of the gas tax money is tied up paying the debt service on 27-year construction bonds

WSF’s loss of about $1.6 million of dedicated money is no big deal. The “motor vehicle” account’s loss of about $76 million is the source of a $30 million annual ferries’ subsidy. Complicating the problem is that WSF thought that the current budget was already short by $13 million even before I-976.

The Governor revised his budget to solve ferry’s $13 million shortfall by decommissioning the Elwha and by transferring $9.8 million into the ferries’ operating account. The revision also transferred $45 million from the “multi-modal” account into the “motor vehicle account” which is used to backfill the annual gap between fares and costs. These steps are only a starting point as the legislature comes up with their own solution to I-976. Funding for Washington State Patrol to cover Kingston ferry traffic may be uncertain. While it was in the Governor’s revised budget, State Patrol has lost money and WSF wants funding to pay for other things. It’s worth asking why we should have to petition for traffic control funding: It should be the cost of doing business. After all that traffic earns the Kingston-Edmonds route a profit of $3.5 million.

Although WSF inspected the Elwha in 2016, last fall the USCG found the vessel to be seaworthy, the Elwha’s car deck needed $7 million in steel repairs. As she also has a large backlog of overdue maintenance, WSF decided that the repairs are just not worth it and recommended decommissioning. Last June the Hyak was decommissioned as well. Losing the Elwha as well brings our ferry fleet down from 23 boats to 21. We need 19 boats for our summer schedule. A 21 boat fleet allows for one standby boat and one boat in maintenance. That isn’t enough, and we’ll likely see service cuts on the smaller routes when we have the usual summer breakdowns. Also only Chelan and Elwha meet international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) standards for service to Canada. Elwha’s loss cuts the Sidney route’s capacity and its reliability.

There is a risk of going down a maintenance black hole here too, since WSF ideally needs an average of 12 weeks of maintenance per boat, per year. In practice they’ve scraped by with 8. Dropping the fleet down to 21 boats allows only a 5 week average. Less maintenance means a greater risk of breakdowns. Time and money spent on emergency repairs takes away from maintenance and a greater breakdown risk and so on. How about buying back the Hiyu? Though small she’s in good shape, cheap to run and up for sale again.

Hyak and Elwha have colorful histories. When the Hyak lost power, she demolished the Orcas Island dock. The Elwha’s captain “discovered” an uncharted rock in Grindstone Harbor while showing a female passenger her home from the water. Predictably a blues song, “Elwha on the rocks,” soon became a hit in the San Juan Islands.