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Foot ferry shutdown greenlighted

Another step to limit the state’s passenger-only ferry system was taken Wednesday as Washington State Ferries (WSF) officials were given the go-ahead to shutdown the program as a cost-saving measure, starting June 15.

But foot ferry commuters can still harbor a glimmer of hope because the state Legislature could step in and resuscitate the program until another entity can take over the service.

If lawmakers can find and approve the funding, that is.

The seven-member, citizen-based state Transportation Commission voted — with the exception of vice chairman George Kargianis — to approve the WSF capital plan on Feb. 19.

The plan affects the Bremerton-Seattle route and the Southworth-Vashon Island-Seattle route.

Reaction among local lawmakers was immediate.

“Indeed, now it will be a question of what the legislature can do, since we now know where the Transportation Commission is headed,” said Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island. “We are looking at a variety of options.”

As vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rockefeller and other Kitsap representatives recently introduced a bill in the House that would allow Kitsap Transit to pursue its passeger-only ferry service plan.

The plan, which is a public-private partnership, would operate foot ferries from Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth, with the possibility of Vashon Island joining the service through an interlocal agreement.

The service could start as early as next summer.

Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, introduced a similar bill this week, and it was referred to the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, of which he is a member.

But for Kitsap Transit’s plan to work, Kitsap Transit still not only needs a state subsidy, but voter approval this fall among Kitsap residents.

Rockefeller said lawmakers are also working on proposals to provide funding to keep foot ferries afloat until another entity can take over the service.

Southworth Ferry Advisory Chairwoman Marjorie Rees wasn’t surprised to hear the Transportation Commission approved the discontinuation of state foot ferry service in the Puget Sound.

“Still, that’s too bad,” she said.

Rees said the next move will be to reconvene the affected ferry advisory committees and try to heavily lobby the Legislature for continued support.

Members from the Bremerton, Vashon and Southworth Ferry Advisory committees were on hand Wednesday at the Transportation Commission meeting.

According to Rees, they proposed WSF keep the passenger-only ferry system running at least until another group could take over the program. Other suggestions included fare and schedule adjustments to keep some semblance of the foot-ferry program operational.

WSF director Mike Thorne first proposed cutting the passenger-only ferry program in December, a month after state voters resoundingly rejected Referendum 51, which would have supplied WSF with capital funding.

“In order to find the funding necessary to invest in our future, we looked at all available options and, in the end, made some tough, but necessary decisions,” Thorne has said.

The entire capital funding plan presented on Wednesday is expected to save the ferries system nearly $7.7 million. The bulk of the savings will come from the discontinuation of state-operated, passenger-only ferry service, ending the 1 a.m. departure from Edmonds to Kingston on Friday and Saturday mornings and continuing the schedule of modifications and reduced fuel costs on the Seattle-Bainbridge Island ferry route that began in the fall.

Additional savings are expected to be made in a variety of other ways:

l A special winter schedule — effective after June 15 — from January to late March could save WSF $400,000 annually. During that period, several services would be discontinued including international service to Sidney, B.C.; Saturday and Sunday inter-island services in the San Juans; the 6:35 p.m. round-trip from Anacortes to Lopez, Shaw and Orcas, Monday through Thursday and on Saturdays; the last two round-trips, Monday through Thursday on the Port Townsend/Keystone route; and third boat service on the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route on winter weekends.

l WSF also wants to place two vessels on stand-by status, saving the system another $1.25 million annually. Plans also include retiring the Hiyu, the Nisqually and the five passenger-only vessels between July 2003 and June 2005.

l Another phase of the capital plan, to take affect from 2005 to 2013, includes the construction and delivery of two new vessels, the retirement of four more auto ferries, relocating the Keystone ferry terminal and ending international service from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C.

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