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Originally published Friday, January 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Ferry task force: another failure

The state passenger-Only Ferry Task Force, charged by the Legislature with "studying the most reliable and cost-effective means of providing...

The state Passenger-Only Ferry Task Force, charged by the Legislature with "studying the most reliable and cost-effective means of providing passenger-only ferry service," has failed. But it's no surprise.

Disagreeing lawmakers reached a compromise last session and kicked to the task force the question of whether Washington State Ferries should expand its foot-ferry service or private operators should be permitted to provide more service. The detour cost several months and about $30,000. Now the question is back where it started, with a report of little consequence being delivered to the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee today.

Lawmakers finally must break the 15-year cycle of bickering indecision and solve the problem. Time is running out, given the pressure of development in ferry communities and the willingness of private operators to step in.

At the task force's meeting Wednesday, several members criticized a consultant's study that attempted to describe the costs of options, including the state expanding passenger-only ferry service between Seattle and Vashon Island with a jog over to Southworth, or permitting private operators to provide the service between Seattle and Vashon and Seattle and Southworth.

But the blame for the inadequate data rests squarely on the dynamic of the impossibly divided 18 stakeholders, each still firmly tied to their own stakes.

Though the group convened in August, the financial consultant wasn't hired until December — after feuding members threatened to issue minority reports.

This week, with constraints of a tight deadline over the holidays, the consultant released its best estimates of costs, which proved to be untenable to some members. The report suggested private operators could provide better passenger-only ferry service with shorter travel times and at a lower subsidy than the state could provide.

Several task-force members poked holes in the report's conclusions. A union representative promised the private operators would have unions on their boats in short order. The private operators say, fine, they'll negotiate contracts with less-onerous work rules, still beating state labor costs.

Sound familiar? Those were the same questions the task force started with. If nothing else, the task force has more clearly defined the turf each member is fighting over.

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