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Originally published Thursday, May 12, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Choice passenger-ferry routes shouldn't be privatized

The legislative session that ended last month produced some huge victories for our state's transportation system. As chairman of the House...

Special to The Times

The legislative session that ended last month produced some huge victories for our state's transportation system. As chairman of the House Transportation Committee, I am very pleased with the steps we took to save lives, move people and deliver goods, especially securing the funding needed to begin replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Highway 520 bridge, as well as many other dangerous roads and structures around the state.

However, I am disappointed that we were unable to reach agreement on the future of our passenger-only ferries, settling again for a study of the most efficient way to maintain service. During the course of the debate, some critics wondered aloud if the Legislature shouldn't just quit the passenger-only ferry business altogether.

I proudly stand as one of those who are not willing to quit. No, I am not willing to quit standing up for the thousands of commuters who depend on ferry service every day. I am not willing to quit defending the taxpayers who will be forced to pay more for the ferry routes that remain once private companies pick off the most profitable ones. I am not willing to quit fighting for the cleaner air, safer highways and quicker commutes that come from supporting public transportation.

The Times believes the state should allow a private company to come in and run the passenger-only ferry service between Southworth and Seattle ("Disappointing delay to local ferry plans" editorial, April 28). I disagree. Consider this:

• The Southworth route is a profitable one, subsidizing the Vashon-Seattle route.

• Allowing a private company to "cherry-pick" this route will cause the state — the taxpayers — to have to subsidize the unprofitable routes at an even higher rate.

• The federal government is a significant source of ferry funds, and every dollar that goes to a private company is one less dollar coming into the state system — and one more dollar the taxpayers of Washington have to make up.

But money is only one reason I think privatizing the choice pieces of the state ferry system is a bad idea. Clogging up our already overburdened highway system is another.

A private route between Southworth and Seattle will make the Vashon run so unprofitable that the state may well shut down the passenger-only service.

"Fine!" you say?

Well, the people depending on that service will still have to get into Seattle each day. They will be forced onto the car ferry to Fauntleroy, which is already over capacity. They — and their cars — will be forced onto Seattle's city streets right at rush hour.

A commute that is already miserable may well become impossible if even more cars are added to the mess twice a day. This doesn't even take into consideration the additional wasted energy (gasoline) and increased air pollution that such a nightmare will incur.

I support our state passenger-only ferries creating a triangle route between Seattle, Vashon and Southworth. That proposal will accommodate growing demand for service in those communities and save taxpayers money. It will let commuters connect easily with bus and train service. It will help ease car traffic in West Seattle. And it will save taxpayers money.

It is the duty of the Legislature to provide transportation to all parts of the state. Transportation is not always something that is expected to pay for itself. Consider the subsidizing of projects that goes on every year — Whitman County, for example, got $2.14 in road projects for every dollar in gas tax its residents paid over the past two decades. We don't charge the residents of counties and communities who live along Highway 21 or Highway 12 extra to keep their roads free of snow every winter so they can continue to get to work and to school.

We know that the use of public transportation is important to our environment and to our highway system, and we have not demanded that small communities pay the full price for their bus systems. Neither can we expect residents of our island communities to pay the full price of their transportation system — a system that necessarily includes state roads and state ferries.

But taxpayers should be able to trust their elected officials to make that system as efficient as possible. At this point, I firmly believe we will seriously violate that trust by allowing a private company to skim the cream off the top of state ferry revenues. And that is why I am not willing to quit.

Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, is from the 43rd District and chairs the House Transportation Committee.

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