With an eye on the likelihood of budget cuts, state transportation officials began modeling a range of rollbacks to the Washington State Ferries system this summer, including scaling back service on routes, eliminating some crossings completely, retiring vessels and culling crew and staff positions.
Those options, mocked out in documents submitted to the state’s Office of Financial Management in June and obtained by the Kitsap Sun through the state’s Public Records Act, identify a broad menu of cuts to the ferry system that Gov. Jay Inslee, legislators and other state officials would choose from in the coming months if they look to shrink the agency’s budget in the economic fallout of the pandemic. The early look at those cuts was prepared in response to a May directive from OFM to state agencies to begin looking for places in their budgets to cut.
In modeling out what a 20% trim to the agency’s biennial operating budget would look like over the next year, Washington State Ferries’ financial planners estimated the agency would have to find $63 million in savings, after factoring in a $39 million CARES Act grant and $7 million in savings the agency achieved with fewer sailings. Getting to 20% would mean a swath of cuts to service and affect anywhere from 300 to 400 employees, according to budget documents.
The Washington State Ferry Wenatchee heads for Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor on Friday. (Photo: Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun)
Like other state agencies, Ferries, as part of the Department of Transportation, is now preparing its budget to submit as part of the normal 2021-2023 biennial budgeting process. OFM is now directing transportation agencies to submit budget proposals with options for 10% savings. Those proposals will help with the formation of the governor’s budget proposal, which will be released ahead of the regularly scheduled legislative session in January.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty about where we’re going to end up,” said Washington State Ferries Director of Finance and Administration Rick Singer.
“Ultimately the policymakers are going to have a real hard call on where they make cuts. I simply don’t see enough revenue out there to cover everything that we would like to see funding for.”
To get to $63 million in cuts in the exercise earlier this summer, the agency identified a range of cuts that would “most likely” be necessary:
- Eliminate service to Southworth and close the terminal there; reduce service to Fauntleroy-Vashon Island, decommission the Tillikum
- Reduce Bremerton-Seattle to one vessel, decommission the Kaleetan
- Reduce Kingston-Edmonds to one vessel, decommission the Spokane
- Reduce Bainbridge Island-Seattle to one vessel, de-crew one of its vessels
- Eliminate selected late night/early morning sailings
- Eliminate Sidney, British Columbia, service and either decommission the Yakima or hold it in service to allow an Issaquah-class vessel to be renovated
- Reduce Port Townsend-Coupeville to one vessel year-round and de-crew a Kwa-di-tabil class vessel
- Reduce administrative costs like training, travel, contracts and other cuts
“Reducing service and eliminating ferry routes will have significant impacts on the communities affected, disrupting the routines of those who travel regularly, particularly commuters, freight and service providers, medical workers, and emergency providers,” the agency noted in a memo. “We can expect public campaigns and lobbying efforts from the highest levels within the communities affected.”
Alternatives to those proposals included eliminating the Port Townsend-Coupeville route completely, eliminating the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route, splitting staff shifts based on peak commute sailings, eliminating midday runs on central Puget Sound routes and laying up one or two of the large, expensive Jumbo Mark II vessels.
With ridership climbing and more employees back to work, Ferries has begun in recent weeks to bring back some service it had scaled back, but the long-term outlook will be in the hands of legislators in 2021.
Said Dana Warr, a spokesman for Ferries: “We are presenting information for the governor and legislators to make decisions. Until we are directed (otherwise), we are full steam ahead with service and trying to re-establish 100% runs.”
“Will they take from this list? Most likely,” he said. “Will they take all of it? No.”
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, a member of the “ferry caucus” of legislators representing communities served by the agency, was hopeful that large cuts wouldn’t come to fruition and speculated that the level of rollbacks lawmakers will be debating will be smaller.
“I don’t foresee devastating cuts to the system, I just don’t,” she said.
“The routes that we have right now … they’ve been agreed upon as the most fundamental to community vitality across the Puget Sound region. Every run that is still in place is there because it was deemed to be important, not politically, but to keep the system functioning. I’ll be fighting really hard to defend those decisions that we made over the last decade.”
One idea for recovering some revenue? Think NASCAR or the kinds of wrap advertising you might see on a transit bus. Tucked away at the bottom of WSDOT’s June submittal to OFM is a proposal to use corporate sponsorship: “Wrapping or allowing advertisements on ferries and IRT trucks (trucks that respond to crashes and other incidents on highways), naming rights for infrastructure, ads on traffic camera feeds.”
Singer, with Ferries, acknowledged the idea of putting advertising banners on the sides of one of the iconic white-and-green vessels would be “not uncontroversial.” But, he said, “We’re going to have to get creative as a state on how we fill some of these funding gaps.”
Nathan Pilling is a reporter covering Bainbridge Island, North Kitsap and Washington State Ferries for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-5242, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @KSNatePilling.
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