Ferries for the future

I would like to share with our readers another excellent article by Charles Maron of the Strong Towns Blog. This article discusses the economics of transportation funding, why our budgets favor new construction over maintenance, why federal contributions aren’t a magic bullet, and why we can’t simply borrow our way towards prosperity.

“[O]ur transportation spending is set up to favor new construction. It is just so much more fun. Maintenance is simply a pain, a local concern. That highway fix it project means nothing but congestion and delays and, when it’s all done, all you have is a little smoother ride. By contrast, new construction is so much better. Not only do the politicians get a ribbon cutting scene, but we can all (once again) “solve” congestion… New growth just feels so much better.

“If the problem here is not obvious to you at this point, let me elaborate. We spend money on transportation. We feel wealthy and experience this enormous “return” (more on that in a second). Only a fraction of that wealth is actually cycled back into the system, however, and an even smaller fraction of that will actually be captured to pay for the project. The amount recouped is ultimately nowhere near the amount invested.”

Read the full article here: Paved with good intentions.

It is easy for ferry-dependent communities to make the case that the ferries are our highways and, as such, are essential for the economic health of the islands. The ferries are also very much a form of public transportation, with high operating costs. We can no longer borrow to pay for our transportation infrastructure, and raising taxes is politically difficult. But beyond those immediate issues are the broader questions of how to maintain our infrastructure in the long run—how the ferry system can be self-sustaining.

My previous post about the Massachusetts Steamship Authority shows one option: that users of the system pay the full cost. Another option is to drastically reduce service, as has happened to Pierce County Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit, and virtually every other state & county agency.

A third option is for island communities to create more value for Washington State. The fact is that many citizens see ferry-served communities as simply places for rich people to have nice country homes. As long as there is a public perception that the ferry system merely supports an exurban-rural lifestyle for the select few, it will be extremely difficult to continue to garner legislative financial support from non-ferry-served districts.

We in the San Juans are actually in a better position than some other ferry communities. Although our farebox recovery rate is the lowest in the system, the San Juans provide a significant economic return to the state by way of taxes collected, primarily through tourism. According to Senator Ranker, in 2010 the San Juans returned $15 million to the state. So the next time you feel “invaded” by the tourists, perhaps it would be a good idea to remember that tourism provides significant support to our ferry system, both directly and indirectly.

The San Juan Islands also have the advantage of providing a high-quality destination within close proximity to a major metropolitan area. We can continue developing car-free tourism opportunities for an emerging group of car-free (or car-sharing) urbanites. We can continue to leverage our recreational, aesthetic, and cultural assets towards supporting not only our own communities, but also providing a return on the investment in the ferry system that all citizens of Washington State have made.


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