And Who Will Pay These Rising Costs?

Guemes Island Ferry Committee                            Allen Bush, Jr.  Sally Stapp, Bud Ullman, Tom Fouts, Steve Orsini,Chair

December 19, 2017

Commissioner Ron Wesen
Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt
Commissioner Lisa Janicki
Public Works Director Dan Berentson
Mr. William Moon                    via email and USPS

Dear Commissioners, Public Works, and Mr. Moon:

The Guemes Island Ferry Committee is sincerely appreciative of the planning, funding, and other work that you have put into the Ferry Replacement Project.  It goes without saying that the Ferry is of enormous importance to residents and visitors to the Island, and we are grateful for your dedication to maintaining this essential link.
We also want to applaud the clarity of Glosten’s presentations and the articulate personnel they have on this project.  We continue to believe Glosten was an excellent choice for the job.

At this point in mid-December we do not think it appropriate for us to inject anything further into the project for current discussion, as you prepare to submit the work to the County Road Administration Board [CRAB] as part of the County’s funding request.  At the same time, we do want to identify some matters that remain unresolved and that warrant attention after the turn of the year when the year-end CRAB requirements have been satisfied.  These fall into three categories.

1.  Leveraging CRAB funding.  We are aware of the conflicting legal advice you have received regarding the eligibility of a vehicle ferry for CRAB funding.  For present purposes we will base our discussion on the opinion expressed by CRAB personnel to the effect that a vehicle ferry is eligible for CRAB funding.  If this changes in the future, we will revise that part of our thinking that is affected by any change.  We note there has been mention of a legislative fix and we would certainly like to be part of any such work.

GIFC is supportive of the County’s effort to secure CRAB funding for this project, with one caveat discussed below.  We appreciate your work to preview Project needs with CRAB and to learn CRAB’s requirements for funding.  That work is, we believe, already paying dividends as the Project moves forwarded and narrows its focus.  If there is anything GIFC can do to help with the County’s work with CRAB, please let us know.

We believe the preferable exercise of CRAB’s authority is that in WAC 136-400-065(2)(b).  Under that paragraph CRAB can fund 50% of the Project cost when a Ferry District provides 5% of the Project costs.  In the present situation, with Project costs around $20M, that means the Ferry District can, for $1M, leverage $10M.  This seems preferable to us compared to subparagraph (a) of the same WAC provision where for 30% of the Project cost (i.e., about $6M) the Ferry District cannot leverage any more than the same $10M as under subparagraph (b).

The caveat mentioned above has to do, of course, with the establishment and nature of a Ferry District.  As we have said before, a County-wide rather than a Guemes Island-only Ferry District is the preferable vehicle for satisfying CRAB’s requirement for several reasons.  The Guemes-only idea is not being well received among Islanders.  Also, a County-wide District already exists in the form of the taxing regime employed for the Road Fund and similar accounts.  And, the Project is, after all, a County ferry, in this regard not entirely unlike a County bridge or highway.  More, it is clear from discussions with CRAB that a District needs not actually tax property owners but may satisfy CRAB’s “County skin in the game” requirement using existing revenue sources.

In sum, GIFC supports leveraging CRAB funding with the subparagraph (b) $1M level using a County-wide Ferry District.  We understand these matters remain undecided and need not be decided before presentations to CRAB by December 31.  But we want to identify these matters as deserving of further discussion soon thereafter.

2.  Reviewing departures from original expectations.  The current design is in some ways a departure from original expectations.  For example, earlier there was expressed the goal of avoiding the expense of modifying dolphins and breakwaters.  Such modifications are now part of the proposal, subject to review in 2018.  In a similar vein, early discussions did not include performing rescue in Bellingham Channel or evacuating all of Guemes Island.

It may be that these are worthy aspects of a new design, and we appreciate the clarity with which these goals have been identified by Glosten.  But we were not aware of them until the December 1, 2017 presentation at the library.  Judging by reactions there and by recent conversations with our constituents, these aspects and their cost deserve further discussion as we move toward more final design phases.

Though we don’t know exact costs, these things add expense to the Project.   We think it worthwhile to take another hard look at whether a boat so much larger than the Guemes is the best alternative, and to ask Glosten’s assistance in comparing the cost of a smaller Project.

3.  Affordability of living on the Island.  The Guemes Island Sub-Area Plan adopted by the County in 2011 establishes a policy of finding “a solution for the problem that younger low-income property owners on Guemes Island might not be able to continue living on the island because of increases in property taxes.”  The same problem is presented, of course, in the context of increasing ferry fares.  And the issue extends also to small businesses and residents on fixed incomes on the Island.  We expect this matter has been in everyone’s mind, but we have been remiss in failing to raise it more directly in the discussion so far.

During and after the expulsion of its native people, Guemes has been home to newer families who found the Island a good place to raise children and the ferry commute to work and schools unforbidding.  Likewise, the Island is home to quite a number of small businesses whose entrepreneurs found the Island a good base of operations despite, or maybe because of, the mild inconvenience of ferry-only access.

These are people who have greatly contributed to the development of Guemes’s values and character.  They are essential to maintaining the characteristics that make it what it is.  We do not have all the Island demographics and economic data in front of us, but we feel confident in saying that for most of the resident young families and aspiring businesses the expense of taxes and ferry tolls is a real factor in budgets.  It needs to be a serious, directly addressed and accommodated aspect of decisions about a replacement boat, beyond our routinely expressed goals of “safety and efficiency” in a new vessel.

Thank you again for your expertise and effort toward this phase of the Guemes Ferry Project.  We look forward to a robust discussion of the items identified above and the other factors that will arise as the work continues to completion.

Very truly yours,
Guemes Island Ferry Committee