Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I'm proud of my State tonight

(This first appeared in slightly different form on

Washington State government is unique in operating a sizable network of ferries to transport people and vehicles around Puget Sound. They're not only a tourist attraction, but a practical necessity for island-dwellers like me. So I subscribe to the ferry system's email updates on tide cancellations, mechanical breakdowns, etc.

Tonight I was stunned to read that the popular run between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend (a waterfront town on the Olympic Peninsula) was shutting down immediately and indefinitely. It seems one of the 80 year-old ferries had been found to have significant pitting in its steel hull. All four boats are being pulled out of service for thorough inspections. It's likely that the vessels will need major repairs—if they can be salvaged at all.

Coming just before the big Thanksgiving weekend, this closure is a minor disaster. But State Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond didn't shirk from making a tough decision. She said “Safety is our number one priority. It cannot be compromised."

I couldn't help imagining what the Bush administration would have done, faced with a similar situation. First of all, they would have cut budgets and corners on maintenance of the ferries, so they might not even have noticed the corrosion until it was too late. They would have disregarded the warnings of metallurgists about the hull damage, because they are, after all, scientists, whose opinions must never be allowed to carry any real weight (who knows, the scientific study of iron oxidation might contradict the "young earth" theory of creation). And they would never, ever, go against the commercial interests who wanted to cash in on the year's biggest shopping weekend.

Then, when one of the tired old girls split apart and sent a couple of hundred people to a frigid death, whichever Bush toady who's been put in charge of marine safety would go on TV and say "No one could have foreseen that the vessel would sink."

Not that things are totally peachy-keen here. Washington, you may know, is home to that Sir Galahad of tax slashers, Tim Eyman, and a certain fraction of our population subscribes to the childishly seductive Republican belief that we can cut taxes indefinitely without consequences. The ferry system has been underfunded for years now, and the bills are coming due. The fact that 80 year-old vessels haven't been replaced pretty much tells the story. Maybe a dramatic gesture like this closing will wake a few people up.

Anyway, kudos to one of those faceless bureaucrats the wingnuts like so much to make fun of, for showing some competence and courage. If only the federal government worked as well.

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