- Associated Press - Monday, October 6, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) — Sen. Patty Murray took U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on a ferry ride in the hopes of making a positive impression as she works to secure funding for the country’s largest ferry system.

“This is a really important part of our transportation and as we move forward on our authorization bills on the federal level we have to make sure we are a partner,” Murray, D-Wash., said during a tour of the Wenatchee as it cruised across Puget Sound to Bainbridge Island, loaded with people, cars, bicycles and tourists. “We have 22 million people who ride these ferries. This is just an essential way for people to live and work outside Seattle.”

She succeeded in getting Foxx’s attention.

“This is another example of what infrastructure does to ease our movements and have a good quality of life and good access to jobs,” Foxx said as he stood on the bow as the ferry smoothly slid into dock. “Seeing it here on the ground has left an indelible impression on me, for sure.”

Earlier in the day Foxx announced a $20 million grant for the Port of Seattle. That money will modernize a container terminal.

What Foxx did not see were examples of the problems that haunted the ferry system this summer, including the July breakdown with 400 people onboard, or the smoke in the engine room of another vessel a few days later.

During the tour, Washington’s transportation secretary Lynn Peterson did not mention those challenges, but instead told Foxx that the ferries have a 99.5 percent reliability rating. She said it also gets high marks for customer satisfaction.

Lynne Griffith, who last month took over as the assistant secretary for the Washington State Ferry system told Foxx: “You are on a major mass people mover. For some it’s the only way for them to get access to services.” The system has 22 vessels, but some are old and will need service or replacement at some point, she said.

Murray said the ferries could be threatened as Congress considers funding for the transportation bill.

“The biggest challenge we have coming forward with the new transportation reauthorization is there are people who do not want to include ferries,” Murray said. “If we just incorporate funding as part of the state grants we’re going to lose out a lot,” she said. “There are some tea party Republicans who don’t believe the federal government should do anything in terms of federal funding, including transportation. So those are some of the big battles we have going on.”

Foxx said he agreed that the ferry system is a vital piece of the nation’s infrastructure.

“It’s a backbone,” he said of Washington’s ferry system. “It’s a lifeline for so many people to get to work and back.”

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