New Ferry? If So, How To Finance It?

New Ferry (Yes or No?).  If Yes, how to Finance it?

We all know that machines, equipment and our bodies eventually become tired worn and don’t perform like they used to!  Our country invested in infrastructure in the early and mid-1900’s, and we have been using those investments with relatively little re-investment for decades.  Many of us have taken our infrastructure for granted and we are just now feeling the consequences of this short-sighted thinking.  Roads, bridges, utilities, ferries and many public buildings are just not able to continue to meet the demands we place on them, let alone addressing ever increasing advances in design and technology, the changing environment and increased consumer expectations.

In the late 1980’s in response to several failures in the propulsion and control system, a substantial upgrade was made to the engines, outdrives and control system on the Guemes.  Some may remember the Guemes was sent to a shipyard in Tacoma for several weeks for the substantial upgrade (I remember it well because I was Skagit County Public Works Director at the time, as well as a full-time Guemes resident), and I received considerable criticism for the length of time the ferry was unavailable.  However that approach was more desirable than the possibility of a catastrophic accident due to a propulsion or control system failure.

So now it’s approaching 30 years since that major re-fit and we are again faced with a choice . . . another substantial retrofit to a vessel with an aging hull and limited deck space, or “biting the bullet” and investing in a modern replacement.  In my opinion, the wisest choice is to replace the Guemes with the “next generation” of marine design and technology (also with considerable “modern thinking” about boarding, loading, billing and payment systems!).

How to finance the cost?  Let’s face it, our choice to live on Guemes Island makes us dependent on a ferry.  The remainder of Skagit County residents have little or no interest, involvement or concern about this issue.  This political fact is well known and understood by the County Commissioners who often view Guemes residents as vocal complainers, with insufficient votes to substantially influence their decisions and/or their re-election.  Be assured that the State Legislature will be even more aware of this political reality.  Consequently, I expect the Ferry Taxing District proposal will ultimately pass, despite our best efforts in opposition.

If that happens, property owners will be making a substantial contribution to financing the replacement or substantial upgrade to the Guemes.  If (or when) that happens . . . fairness and equity would require implementation of a two-tier rate schedule.  Property owners should be provided with a base fare predicated on maintenance and operation (M&O) costs only, while non-owners’ rates should address M&O as well as a capital improvement component.  Without this approach, property owners will be paying twice for capital improvements, while non-owners (who are largely responsible for peak demands) would pay but once.

Mark Spahr, Professional Civil Engineer 

Tags: ferry