DOT reverses course, finds extra $7.6 million for Washington state ferries

Washington State's ferries going about their business.
Washington State's ferries going about their business. Betty Udesen/Seattle Times/MCT

WASHINGTON — Only 24 hours after announcing virtually zero funding for Washington state's ferry systems, the federal Department of Transportation reversed itself Wednesday and said it would provide an additional $7.6 million in stimulus cash.

The reversal came after Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., muscled Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who promised to "expedite" a review of why his department had not awarded any of the $60 million in ferry stimulus grants to the state's ferries.

Murray chairs the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, which controls the purse strings for the Transportation Department. The subcommittee is scheduled to mark up next year's funding bill for the department next week.

The senator had inserted the $60 million in ferry grants in the stimulus bill approved by Congress earlier this year and was furious Tuesday when the grants were announced and the state's ferries were mostly shut out.

In her phone conversation with LaHood, Murray said she made clear she felt there had been a mistake and "he agreed. He said he was sorry about the oversight and rectified it."

Murray said it was clear to LaHood that she was the chair of the transportation appropriations subcommittee and had inserted the ferry grant money in the stimulus bill.

"I had worked hard for this," Murray said. "I thanked him for being responsive."

Murray said she wouldn't carry a grudge.

"I don't punish people who do the right thing," she said.

In a statement, LaHood said he was "pleased" to announce the additional funding and thanked Murray for her leadership.

"These projects are worthy of our support," he said.

Ten days ago, LaHood rode the Seattle-Bremerton ferry with Gov. Chris Gregoire and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash, while on a visit to the state. Those accompanying LaHood said he was impressed with the state's ferries.

LaHood had no idea the ferry systems in Washington state would receive only 1 percent or so of the $60 million in grants announced Tuesday, said a department spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified because she was not speaking for the department officially.

"It was ridiculous," the spokeswoman said of the lack of funding for Washington ferries. "We found the additional money."

The spokeswoman confirmed Murray's role in securing the additional funding.

"She is very important and we recognize that," she said.

The spokeswoman said the grants were aimed at bolstering ferries in economically distressed areas, and such Washington counties as King County didn't meet that qualification.

The Washington state Department of Transportation, which operates the nation's largest ferry system, will now receive $3 million to help replace its Anacortes Terminal. Kitsap Transit will receive $2.6 million to procure a prototype, passenger-only, fast ferry for the Seattle-Bremerton run, and the King County Ferry District will receive $2 million for a passenger-only ferry that would be used on a Seattle-Vashon Island run.

On Tuesday, the department awarded a $750,000 grant to the Skagit County Public Works Department for the Guemes Island ferry.

All told, the state's ferry systems will be receiving more than $8.3 million, more than any of the other 19 states that were awarded grants.

Gregoire, in a statement, said the additional funding was "great news" and praised Murray.

But Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., whose district includes the San Juan Islands, which are dependant on ferries, said he was concerned the same thing could happen in the future.

"I demand a full explanation of how this bizarre decision came to be made in the first place," Larsen said. "If they fail to remedy the process that allowed this incredible oversight, there will be future problems for Washington state and our country."

The state, along with the counties and various ferry districts, had sought a total of $56 million in stimulus grants and were stunned when the only money awarded was for the Guemes Island ferry.

"Isn't it great how the world turns," Paula Hammond, secretary of the Washington state Department of Transportation, said Wednesday. "Apparently the senator and the governor had a long talk with the secretary and apparently it worked."

Hammond said that even though the state ferry system was receiving only $3 million, the funding for the other system was important.

"It's a collective and integrated system," she said.