House approves transportation package

House Democrats and a handful of Republicans passed a 10-year, $3.1 billion transportation funding package as a compromise Tuesday night, following heated partisan debate.

The measure was approved 51-46, with Kitsap County’s Democratic legislators —including Reps. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton and Bill Eickmeyer, D-Belfair — voting in favor of the plan.

Kitsap’s Republican legislators — Reps. Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo, and Lois McMahan, R-Olalla — voted against the package.

The plan is a bit more ambitious than the previous House Democrat version, as it hinges on a four-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase phased in at a penny a year.

The previous proposal relied on a three-cent gas tax hike.

The plan came out just days after House and Senate leaders participated in late-night “pajama parties” with Gov. Gary Locke to hash out differences in their respective transportation wish lists.

Although the House version is the first closely watched tax increase to pass either chamber, the Republican-controlled Senate is planning to approve an even larger tax package to fix Washington state’s transportation needs — one that’s anchored by a nickel increase in the gas tax.

The state’s current gas tax is 23-cents-a-gallon, and hasn’t been increased since 1990.

In addition to the gas tax hike, the House’s long-term funding plan would also impose a .46 percent vehicle transfer fee, a 15 percent trucking surcharge and a $20 fee to retain license plates.

Washington State requires new plates be issued every seven years.

The House had an easier time approving a transportation budget for the next biennium.

Legislators approved it 51-46, with Kitsap’s Democratic lawmakers, as well as Woods, again voting in favor. McMahan voted against that proposal.

The $4.2 billion transportation budget relies on current revenues in addition to any revenues generated from the gas tax increase and other transportation taxes approved by House members.

It allocates $315 million in operational funding to the state ferry system, enough to maintain foot ferry service for two years from Vashon Island and adds routes to Southworth and Kingston at peak commuter hours. There is no funding for the Bremerton route, however. And there is enough capital funding for Washington State Ferries to purchase a new passenger-only vessel and two auto boats, “I think we are being unduly punished,” he said. “Time is money. Every minute I am sitting on the ferry I am not doing business.”

Another passenger, Kay Howe, has used the ferries for 10 years to commute to her job as a legal secretary in Seattle.

“I work seven hours a day with a six-hour commute,” Howe exaggerated. “They have made no provisions in the schedule for people who have white collar jobs.”

Both Howe and Hoke say that there should be more options in the new proposed schedules for lunchtime ferries.

“You can really get trapped in this new schedule,” Hoke said.

Aboard Wednesday’s 8:30 a.m. sailing from Bremerton to Seattle, Jim Olson, WSF dock supervisor for Seattle’s Pier 50, stood near the boat’s entrance. He had a huge stack of surveys nestled under his arm.

“Most of the passengers are very unhappy,” he said. “Most of them take this boat because it fits better into their schedule and it is a small boat with less noise. And it gets them there quicker.”

Olson said that since WSF raised the ferry fare by a dollar a couple years ago, there has been 75 to 100 less riders on every sailing.

Still, WSF is trying to make due with what is available.

“It is not going to please everyone,” said Fred Chang, chair of the Bremerton Ferry Advisory Committee. “It is our attempt to make the best of a bad situation.”

Chang said that although the car ferry plan will help replace some of the passenger-only ferry times, they will not be frequent enough.

Instead of eight sailings before 8:30 a.m. in the morning, he said, there will only be three. Not only will the longer ride times effect commuters, but so will the reduced number of sailings.

Currently, Kitsap Transit is working on a plan to replace WSF’s passenger-only ferries with smaller boats making 30-minute commutes. Kitsap County voters are expected to have a say in the matter this November when Kitsap Transit will propose a sales tax increase of three-tenths of a cent to pay for the new system.

At this time, the most popular passenger-only run from Seattle to Bremerton is at 5:30 p.m. Results of a survey conducted by WSF between Jan. 1-28, found that on average 228 riders stepped on board that sailing. The most popular from Bremerton to Seattle route is the 6:40 a.m. run; an average 279 riders hop on that foot ferry.

Option 1 of the ferry schedule drafts in consideration includes the 5:30 p.m. Seattle-Bremerton run, the second option does not. Both drafts move the 6:40 a.m. Bremerton-Seattle time up to 6:20 a.m. to enable riders to arrive in Seattle at the same time they were getting there via the foot ferries.

On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, surveys were handed out that included descriptions of the proposed schedules. Respondents could draw a circle around which option they liked better. There were also blanks for comments.

“We don’t have unlimited flexibility,” said Dave Remagen of WSF. “We are hoping to get input to see if there are some areas we need to make some adjustments to.”

Remagen said WSF will not just count votes, they will use comments to create a third and final draft by the end of next week.

One Bremertonian who has felt the effects of the many shifts of the passenger-only ferry system is Eric Painter. He moved her from Seattle three years ago with his wife to get a good deal on an older house. He is now a member of the Bremerton Ferry Advisory Committee. Before moving here, Painter carefully weighed the pros and cons, especially because he kept his job in ceramics at Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

A 35-minute crossing time on passenger-only ferries when Painter was making his decision was appealing.

Then an out-of-court settlement between WSF and Bainbridge Island shoreline residents resulted in the slowing of passenger-only ferries through Rich Passage.

Painter’s 30-minute commute became something closer to 40 or even 45 minutes. It also became more taxing for Painter’s Seattle buddies to visit since that now entails a two-hour, or longer, round trip.

Painter’s experience is a common one for Seattle folks who have moved to Bremerton to take advantage of lower housing costs. He says he knows numerous people who have bought old houses here and fixed them up, or started their own businesses on this side of the water. They are helping to raise property values here and bring in more tax money to the city, Painter says, but for more people to join the trend, there has to be more boats, more often and they have to be faster.

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