Washington state's ferry system is an essential part of the state's transportation infrastructure.
Sometimes that's a bit difficult to see or, at least, accept in the southeastern corner of the state, which is surrounded by deserts and mountains rather than huge bodies of water.
Yet, it's clear traveling throughout Washington state would be nearly impossible without a ferry system that links the islands in Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula with the rest of the state. The entire state's economy would suffer if those living across the sound from Seattle couldn't get to work, or stores or to appointments.
Getting people and cars across water is extremely expensive. And given the state's serious budget problems, it's a cost that is not easily absorbed.
Last week Gov. Chris Gregoire, faced with enormous pressure to reduce state spending, suggested turning authority for the ferry system and the responsibility for funding it over to the water-bound counties through a regional board. Gregoire's proposal, which would require legislative approval, would fund ferries through local taxes collected in Pierce, King, Snohomish, San Juan, Skagit, Island, Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam counties.
The system would be governed by a board of elected representatives from those counties with some additional members appointed by the governor, according to The Tacoma News Tribune. The state would still contribute some funding, although Gregoire did not say how much.
"We cannot Band-Aid the (ferry) system any longer," said Gregoire at a news conference announcing her proposal. "Once we get through the '11-'13 budget, we will be in the red forever if we don't take action this legislative session."
The governor is correct that the long-term fiscal concerns of the ferry system must be addressed. Perhaps the already substantial user fees -- fares -- will have to go even higher. But the governor's plan seems to go too far in abdicating the state's funding responsibility and oversight. State subsidy is necessary to keep the fares from being unaffordable.
This ferry system is used by most Washingtonians at some point and the economic benefit of moving people and goods throughout the state is enjoyed by all.
Predictably, lawmakers from districts that would be paying the ferry tax took a swift stand against the governor's proposal.
Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told The News Tribune she opposed the idea that local taxes should help pay for the ferries in a statement she released along with opposition from four other Senate Democrats.
"Isolating the needs in our ferry system and creating another layer of government to address them is not the solution," said the Democrats' statement. "Users of ferries already pay into the highway system just like everybody else when they pay gas taxes, in addition to ferry fares."
The ferry system, like the highway system, is ultimately a statewide responsibility.