WA, Alaska lawmakers urge more spending on ferries

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from Washington state and Alaska are teaming up to push for a dramatic increase in federal spending on ferry systems nationwide.
A bill introduced Wednesday by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would nearly triple ferry spending, to $200 million a year. Washington state has the largest ferry system in the country, with over 25 million riders a year. Alaska's Marine Highway system serves 30 communities along routes totaling more than 3,000 miles.
Murray said the bill would boost a transportation network that provides a crucial lifeline for millions of commuters. Ferries are used in 38 states, and more than 100 million passenger trips are taken each year on ferry systems nationwide. Ferries also provide emergency evacuation in times of crisis, Murray said, citing the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and the collapse of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
Murray, who rides a ferry weekly to Whidbey Island, Wash., said investment in ferries has long been a top priority. She called Washington state's ferry system, centered around Puget Sound, an important means of transportation and a part of the region's cultural identity.
Still, Murray acknowledged that it is not always easy to convince some colleagues in Congress of the importance of a robust ferry system.
"They understand investments in roads, highways and in rail. But many don't realize that for many states, ferries are a crucial link in the transportation chain. And for many Americans, ferries are the only means of travel to jobs, hospitals or places of commerce," Murray said.
Murkowski called ferry transportation crucial to Alaska.
"Ferries provide vital transportation for residents and visitors to many of Alaska's remote coastal communities," she said. "This bill will increase funding for our nation's public ferry systems at a time when many of our vessels are aged and in need of replacement."
Besides Washington and Alaska, ferries are also used by commuters in New York, California, North Carolina and other states. Companies in several states, including New York, Mississippi and Wisconsin, build ferries, creating what Murray called a national coalition for the bill.
The measure was introduced as a standalone bill, although Murray said it is likely to be folded into a larger transportation authorization bill being considered in the House and Senate. Murray chairs the Senate Appropriations transportation subcommittee. Murkowski serves on the Appropriations panel.
As proposed, the measure would boost ferry spending from $67 million a year to $200 million. Half the money would be distributed according to a formula that takes into account factors such as passenger use, number of vehicles carried and total mileage. The other half would be distributed by the U.S. transportation secretary in a competitive process.
Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., introduced a companion bill in the House. Larsen, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said the federal government currently invests less than 1 percent of federal surface transportation dollars in ferries. More money is needed to help ferry systems across the country replace aging vessels and meet growing demand, he said.
David Moseley, director of Washington State Ferries, joined the three lawmakers at a news conference Wednesday. He called ferries "our maritime highways and our bridges across the water. It's time they were treated equally in transportation funding."

By:  Matthew Daly
Source: Lawmakers from Washington state and Alaska are teaming up to push for a dramatic increase in federal spending on ferry systems nationwide.