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Originally published Monday, March 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Battle looming over Vashon route

The Vashon Island-to-downtown Seattle ferry service could be caught in a political tug-of-war between two powerful legislators who vigorously...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Vashon Island-to-downtown Seattle ferry service could be caught in a political tug-of-war between two powerful legislators who vigorously disagree on whether or not the state should be in the passenger-only ferry business.

Two years ago the state eliminated its foot ferries but, following an outcry from Vashon residents, relented and agreed to fund that route through this June. If there is no passenger-only ferry, residents would instead have to ride the car ferries to the Fauntleroy terminal in West Seattle.

Today the state ferry system is proposing not only continuing passenger ferries but also expanding the run to Southworth, on the Kitsap Peninsula, in a so-called triangle route, which state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, strongly supports.

Murray, as head of the House Transportation Committee, will play a strong role in any ferry decision.

But his counterpart on the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, just as strongly opposes the expanded service and will fight spending money on it.

Murray predicted that if legislators don't agree to the triangle-route proposal during this session, the funding won't be provided to continue running the Vashon passenger ferry.

The ferry currently used on the Vashon-to-downtown run is in such bad condition the state "can't justify putting more money into a boat that's falling apart," said Murray. The state proposes putting two mothballed ferries, the Chinook and the Snohomish, on the triangle route.

He supports the triangle route, in part, because half the riders on the Vashon passenger ferry already come from Southworth. If private operators win the right to run a Southworth-to-Seattle run, as they are proposing, Vashon residents worry the Vashon run could be eliminated altogether because its ridership would shrink.

Legislative analysts say the 2003-05 biennial cost for vessel and terminal operations at Vashon is $5 million, which could go down to $3.5 million if the ferry-workers union agrees to have employees work split shifts.

However, the state needs to put $1.2 million into refurbishing the Vashon boat and needs $800,000 in terminal improvements. That means the total state cost to keep the Vashon-to-downtown run going, as it currently operates, is at least $5 million.

The state argues that the operating cost of the triangle route would be the same as it now pays for Vashon, but an additional $1 million would have to be invested at Southworth.

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Haugen said the state, with limited funds, can't continue to subsidize passenger ferries.

"We have huge transportation needs," she said. "I don't see how we can afford to get into the business of passenger-only ferries that don't pay their fair share and only serve a small percentage of Puget Sound traffic."

Some Vashon residents support the triangle-route plan and fear if a private operation wins the authority to run a ferry from Southworth to downtown Seattle, Vashon could be left out in the cold.

Murray said if no decision is made about the triangle route, the mothballed ferries — worth an estimated $10 million each — should be sold.

"We'll all walk out as winners or we'll all walk out as losers," Murray said of the ferry dispute.

Meanwhile, Sen. Erik Poulsen, D-Seattle, whose district includes Vashon Island, said his bottom line is that there be no interruption of passenger service on Vashon.

"The Legislature owes it to ferry riders to keep the service going as long as it takes," he said. "The stage is being set for a colossal fight between the House and Senate transportation chairs. Rep. Murray is hell-bent to adopt the triangle route; Sen. Haugen is hell-bent to accept the Kitsap private proposal. The real question is who will blink first."

Complicating matters is King County Metro, which is exploring getting into the passenger-ferry business and is looking at picking up the Vashon route. But that is at least months away, long after the current state funding for Vashon service expires.

"It's our responsibility to service the citizens on Vashon Island if the state says no," said David Hull, project manager with the Metro ferry study.

But Murray argues that King County's interest could kill the state plan.

"King County has enough trouble running a bus service."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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