House wants funding for third 144-car ferry to come from new tab fee

By Rebecca Gourley
WNPA Olympia News Service

The state House of Representatives wants to set aside $50 million to spend on the construction of a new 144-car ferry.

The money is included in the House supplemental budget for transportation, which passed by a large margin March 4. However, approval of the money is contingent on passage of another bill now in the Senate.

House Bill 1129 aims to fund a third 144-car ferry by charging a service fee on all vehicles registered in Washington.

Dubbed the "peanut butter cup bill" during last year's session, the bill combines what primary sponsor Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, describes as two good things that go well together. It includes money for new ferries and makes tab service fees the same for private businesses and public offices.

The Department of Licensing contracts with a number of private businesses to offer vehicle and vessel title registration services, but these business must charge a $5 administrative fee. The bill proposes that public offices do the same, in addition to a $12 fee applied to title transactions.

Morris said that this bill would "level the playing field," charging drivers the same amount whether they renew or purchase tabs at a private business or at a government office like a state licensing office or county courthouse.

"It's a win-win," Morris said in an interview.

Revenue from the new fees is expected to be about $11 million in the first year (2015), and about $22.8 million per year for the four years after that.

The Washington State Ferries budget already includes money to construct two 144-car ferries. The vessels are being built by Vigor Fab shipyard in Seattle. The first vessel, named Tokitae, is scheduled to make its debut on the Mukilteo-Clinton route in June.

The extra fees proposed in this bill would help pay for a third ferry of the same class.However, the fee revenue in its second year, about $22.8 million, is only about 19 percent of the cost of the third ferry, $123 million.

David Moseley, ferries assistant secretary, said the new service fee would cover the full cost of building the new ferry because Ferries would finance a bond. The fee would have to be in place for the next several years to pay off that bond.

Representatives from around the state expressed criticism and praise for the bill during the House floor debate in February.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said he doesn't like that all drivers across the state would have to pay the fee.

"I think it's a little unfair to ask people who are driving vehicles in all other parts of the state to pay for ferry construction," he said. "That's the word that I get from my constituents."

But Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, took a broader view of public funding for ferries as part of the state highway system.

"Sometimes we have to step up and recognize and realize that [ferries] are assets in our state," she said.

The Senate passed its transportation supplemental budget on March 4 as well. Unlike the House budget, however, it doesn't include any money for a third 144-car ferry.

Morris said he remains optimistic that his bill will meet with Senate approval and be sent to the governor for a signature.

"It's not a done deal," he said. "But right now I'm hopeful that there's a lot of bipartisan support for it."

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