Clibborn offers commentary on ferry problems, recent progress and reforms

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Washington’s ferry system is both a proud symbol of our state’s unique beauty and geography, and a stark reminder of how difficult it is to provide reliable, accountable services in an era of diminished resources. Beginning a decade ago with the passage of Initiative 695, which eliminated the majority of ferry funding, legislators have been forced to cobble together imperfect—and insufficient—funding sources.

Funding levels barely able to maintain basic services are compounded with repair and replacement costs for an aging fleet. Unexpected safety issues in 2007 led to the abrupt removal of four ferries from service; isolated repairs to other aging vessels continue to cause route delays and cancellations.

The ferry system is an integral part of our state’s highway infrastructure, and the rights of ferry users to safe, dependable service are equal to those of users of rural highways or urban interstates.

But before we can address the issue of reliable, long-term funding, we need to make sure existing dollars are being used as efficiently as possible. Recent media coverage has put the ferry system under an intense spotlight that must be addressed.

King 5 television’s series of investigative reports has exposed some shocking practices at Washington State Ferries (WSF) that cause concern among taxpayers and legislators alike.

I’m here not to defend WSF or disparage King 5’s reporting, or vice versa. Both have flaws and strengths.

As a legislator who leads the state’s transportation budget-writing process, I’d like to fill in some glaring gaps to the story and assure citizens that the Legislature has taken corrective action and will continue to demand accountability with the public’s dollars.

Although I’m not aware of anyone at WSF breaking the law, it’s clear that good judgment and fiscal responsibility were thrown overboard in some instances.

State employees serve in the public’s interest and have a special obligation to use taxpayer dollars in thoughtful, efficient ways as they deliver services.

The vast majority of state employees and unions are conscientious and supportive of innovation. But some, we’ve learned, are not. Creating never-ending “special projects” and attaching lucrative travel and overtime pay provisions to contracts defy the spirit of public service.

“Because it’s always been done this way” is not an excuse. Responsibility and scrutiny shouldn’t be trumped by inertia.

Thankfully things are changing; ferry reform began long before these stories became public. Comprehensive review and change began around 2007 in the form of legislative direction such as House Bill 2358 and an executive shakeup with new leaders at both WSF and the Department of Transportation (DOT). Initial reforms focused on controlling capital costs, such as reducing the use of consultants and prioritizing building new vessels over ferry terminal enhancements.

In subsequent legislative sessions, we’ve continued making progress. The latest revelations in the media show that our reform work must continue. But let’s also not forget how far WSF has come over the past three years.

Despite major budget challenges, the Legislature has worked with WSF to build desperately needed new vessels. By this fall, the first new ferry since 1999 will be in service, on the Port Townsend-Keystone route. A second ferry is under construction now, with definite plans for a third soon afterward. As the nation’s largest ferry system, WSF must have an adequate supply of safe boats that meet capacity needs.

WSF has also succeeded in several cost-saving measures since 2008. The use of consultants has been slashed by 82 percent, and staff on both the capital and operating sides has seen big cuts. Cost-modeling for ferry terminal maintenance has been revised in a way that saves money.

WSF says these actions have saved about $26 million annually. Moreover, unions gave up cost-of-living adjustments, saving $9 million annually.

During the 2010 Legislative Session, I led the charge to get labor costs under control by spearheading House Bill 3209. This bill improves the contract-negotiation process with unions by ending baseball-style arbitration and stipulating that arbiters must take into account the state’s ability to pay—especially important in a rough economy like today’s.

In recent months, WSF itself has ushered in important new reforms. Its “special projects” are now much more narrowly defined, and extra pay for travel time and mileage on such projects has ended. Savings of $120,000 each year are expected.

A new overtime policy is in place, instructing managers to “use their best business judgment” when authorizing overtime. Subsequent auditing of time sheets will further inspect these overtime decisions. And the practice of allowing both overtime and vacation pay for staff chief engineers is now eliminated, saving about $11,500 annually.

Amidst an operating budget of $426 million, these figures aren’t huge, but they are still important.

Lastly, the governor and the Legislature have ordered WSF to be reviewed by outside organizations in the hopes of identifying further efficiencies.

The State Auditor’s Office is examining WSF’s payroll and timekeeping systems, and an expert review panel backed by the national Passenger Vessel Association will take a top-to-bottom look at the system and recommend best-practices found in other public and private ferry systems across the nation. Findings from both reviews will be reported by this fall.

For years, the Legislature has recognized WSF’s financial and management challenges, and our record of demanding reform is clear. We agree with media reports that our work isn’t done—WSF’s turnaround isn’t yet complete. Whether it’s the media, concerned citizens or employees themselves, I’m pleased when anybody has the courage to identify problems that need addressing.

To generate a conversation about reform, the governor last week floated the idea of privatizing the ferries. I don’t think that’s the solution for these challenges. Remember that before 1951, the ferries were run privately until a citizen outcry.

But that doesn’t mean top-notch business practices shouldn’t apply. They absolutely should, and WSF must do better.

Ultimately, I believe in the leadership at WSF and DOT—they were brought in as change agents in 2007-08 and have since demonstrated progress and a continued willingness to adopt new strategies. Together our goal remains to support a ferry system that is sustainable, that adequately serves its riders and communities, and that is safe and efficient.

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