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Bremerton's afternoon ferry riders bracing for proposed service cuts

Bremerton resident Danny Becker commutes to his job in Seattle on the 12:20 p.m. ferry from Bremerton each day, a trip threatened by budget cut proposals from Washington State Ferries. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Bremerton resident Danny Becker commutes to his job in Seattle on the 12:20 p.m. ferry from Bremerton each day, a trip threatened by budget cut proposals from Washington State Ferries.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

For Danny Becker of Bremerton, the midday ferry run is a means of survival.

As a King County Metro employee, he uses the 12:20 p.m. boat from Bremerton to Seattle to get to work on time. He changes shifts every four months, but for now, he uses the midday run five times a week.

“For right now and the next two months, this is my ferry,” he said aboard the boat Monday.

Having worked for King County Metro for three years, he said he had to find work in Seattle because of a lack of options in Bremerton.

“There’s just not that many good paying jobs in Bremerton unless you work for the Navy or the shipyard,” he said. “You gotta go where the jobs are.”

Midday commuters like Becker may have to change course if a proposal to cut a round trip from the ferry schedule in the middle of the day – the 12:20 p.m. from Bremerton and the 1:30 p.m. from Seattle – is approved by the Legislature in the 2011-2013 budget when lawmakers meet in January. The slashed service, proposed by the state Department of Transportation in a budget reduction memo dated Oct. 15, is part of a $17 million – or 4 percent – budget cut that Washington State Ferries must meet, at the request of the state Office of Financial Management.

Lawmakers noted, however, that neither the governor nor the Legislature have to accept the proposed service cuts. Drastic cuts to Kitsap ferry routes were proposed two years ago, but were fought off by the Legislature.

But, as one ferry rider noted, when one run is cut, more will follow.

Becker, as well as state lawmakers representing Bremerton, say the cuts are necessary, but should be applied more heavily to ferry staff and administration.

“As far as staff workers on the ferries, I sincerely believe they have too many people working on each boat,” Becker said.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, agreed and said service should not be cut at all.

“They are in the business of sailing ferries. That’s what we do,” he said of the ferry system. “Our economic future depends on full ferry service.”

Reducing the midday runs for Bremerton, which were added to the schedule a year and a half ago, would save the ferries $776,000, said David Moseley, assistant secretary for Washington State Ferries. Those trips were singled out among the others on the schedule because of their low ridership.

The 1:30 p.m. trip from Seattle averaged about 150 passengers per weekday in May of this year, according to numbers supplied by Washington State Ferries. That’s more than the 7:35, 8:30 and 10 a.m. runs - which averaged 120, 71 and 99 passengers, respectively - but is dwarfed by passenger counts on the later afternoon boats, including 387 passengers at 3 p.m., 683 at 4:20 p.m. and 721 at 5:30 p.m.

The goal was to spare regular commuter routes that most passengers depend on, Moseley said.

By keeping a boat tied to the Bremerton dock during the day, the ferry system will save on labor costs by shrinking the length of a crew shift from 10 to eight hours, said Ray Deardorf, planning director for Washington State Ferries.

The ferry system is also proposing $3 million in staff and administration cuts, including reductions in overtime for deck and terminal employees and the elimination of some engine room, finance and administration, marketing and human resource positions.

Bremerton is not the only run targeted for service cutbacks. The late-night boats on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry run would be pulled and the extended hours added to the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route last fall would be taken away. Winter service levels will be extended from 12 to 20 weeks, meaning 20 weeks of no service to Sidney, B.C., no third weekend boat for Fauntleroy-Vashon Island-Southworth and reduced service to the San Juan Islands.

But that’s no comfort for Marietta O’Sullivan of Silverdale, who rides a morning boat to Seattle to visit her mother and takes the 1:30 back to Bremerton to pick up her daughter from school.

“I just really wish they wouldn’t cut it,” O’Sullivan said Tuesday. “To cut it would just really be a shame.”

Dean Shurley of Bremerton uses the 1:30 from Seattle once or twice a week, on his way home from regular visits with his doctor and attorney, but he knows it’s not a boat the ferry system will fight to save.

"I don't think they're going to keep the ferry just for me," he said Monday.

If not for the 1:30 ferry, Shurley would have to take the 3 p.m. trip home, a “miserable” ferry he calls the “cattle boat” because of the large crowd on board and the heavy Puget Sound Naval Shipyard traffic he hits when he gets off the boat at 4 p.m.

"The 1:30 boat is probably one of the nicest boat rides‚it's so quiet," Shurley said.

But because of the 1:30 boat’s relative emptiness, Bremerton resident John Freeburg understands why the ferry system would remove it from the schedule.

“I think it’s kind of hard to justify a boat that’s this sparsely populated,” he said on the 1:30 ferry Tuesday, surrounded by rows of empty seats.

State Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who advocated the adjustment of labor agreements to help put the midday ferry runs on the schedule, said she will fight to avoid service cuts and search for cost-cutting efficiencies, such as using smaller boats for less crowded runs. Yanking the midday trips after being added to the schedule just a year and a half ago prevents people from relying on the ferry for the long term, she said.

“What we’re trying to do is build up steady, predictable service so people can plan their lives around it,” Rolfes said. “When we change the schedule back and forth it doesn’t allow people to plan in the long term.”

The proposed cuts are far from being a done deal, Rolfes said. Bremerton service cuts were avoided when they were proposed by Washington State Ferries two years ago.

Aside from the convenience of using the midday boats for doctor appointments, lunch trips or sick leave from work, others worry about the economic health of Bremerton should service cuts be made.

Ann Erickson, a Silverdale resident and chairwoman of the Bremerton Ferry Advisory Committee, said if one trip is cut from Bremerton, more will follow, damaging Kitsap property values.

“They have to understand how this lack of good transportation on the Bremerton ferry is going to impact their property values,” she said. “We count on a good ferry schedule.”

Bremerton City Councilman Adam Brockus said that with reduced ferry service, Bremerton will lose residents, shoppers and taxpayers, which would damage the city’s own income.

“Bremerton can’t spare it,” he said. “I hope we can keep it.”

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