A bipartisan team of state lawmakers from Pierce County wants to give the county the ability to create a ferry district, which could mean a new tax for some, if not all, of its residents.
Doug Richardson, chairman of the Pierce County Council, said county residents should not expect a new tax for ferries anytime soon. But the legislation would give the county a financial backup plan for its ferries that give Anderson and Ketron Island residents a crucial connection to the mainland, he said.
“We needed an option going forward,” Richardson said.
Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, is the main sponsor of House Bill 1331 with Rep. Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, and Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, as co-sponsors. Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, is the primary sponsor of a similar proposal, Senate Bill 5403, that also has the support of Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma.
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The proposals would remove the stipulation that ferry districts exclusively operate ferries with walk-on passengers. Removing this language would allow Pierce County to create a district for its two ferries that transport both walk-on and drive-on passengers.
Should the legislation pass, the ferry district could charge property owners a maximum of 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The County Council would decide the size of the district. Kilduff’s bill says that if the council chooses to form a district in only a portion of the county, the county must either submit the proposal to voters or allow voters to force a vote by the referendum process.
Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, voted against that bill in the House Transportation Committee. He said he was concerned about the lack of clarity regarding the scope of a possible ferry district. Young said he wanted to make sure the tax would only affect people who use the ferries.
“There is no way that I am going to support any kind of tax that is going to fall on the heads of low-income people so people who can afford a plush place on Anderson Island can get their ferries paid for,” he said. “That just seems fundamentally unfair.”
The county is seeking the legislation because the ferry system’s revenue is not predicted to keep pace with its costs, according to a 2015 Pierce County Waterborne Transportation Study. Ferry ridership has declined significantly in the past decade as the some key fares have increased, the study said.
Richardson said the county has tried to save money by stretching the ferry schedule to more hours of the day with less frequent trips. But the system’s costs continue to grow far faster than fare revenue.
In 2015, Pierce County spent $6,093,085 and brought in $2,753,230 in service charges. Pierce County expects to spend $1,773,915 more this year than in 2015, and it expects to increase revenue from service charges by $403,770.
Revenue from fares, federal and state funds, and the county road fund pay for the ferries’ operation and maintenance. State support is limited, and federal funds are renewed yearly, meaning they are never a guaranteed source of revenue. That uncertainty puts more pressure on fares and the county road fund, which must support transportation improvements countywide and is limited by the 1 percent cap on the property tax that maintains it.
Tiffany Speir, Pierce County government relations director, said imposing a new tax to fund a ferry district could benefit both the ferries and the roads.
“Roads need constant maintenance and updates,” Speir said.
Rep. Sherry Appleton, the Democrat co-sponsoring Kilduff’s bill, said she is not sure a ferry system would receive proper funding if not supported by an entire county. In her district, Kitsap County voters approved a countywide sales tax increase in November to pay for a new passenger-only ferry connecting to Seattle. But the idea wasn’t popular with everyone.
“Ferries have been a very contentious issue, because there are people that don’t want to pay for a ferry they don’t use,” Appleton said.
Ann Dasch, a resident of Anderson Island for 12 years, said people living on the island should be able to afford a ferry district tax if Pierce County chooses to impose one. She said the ferries are a critical resource for people living on the island who need to go to school, work, the grocery store or the hospital.
“It is how we access pretty much everything,” Dasch said.
Forrest Holt: 360-943-7240, @forrest_holt