Ferry system in crisis, officials say

By James Robinson
Posted 5/15/24


Elected officials from seven area counties and eight cities delivered a letter May 7 to leadership of the federal House and Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development …

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Ferry system in crisis, officials say



Elected officials from seven area counties and eight cities delivered a letter May 7 to leadership of the federal House and Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittees urgently requesting funding for federal ferry grant programs at the highest level possible in 2025.

“The Washington State Ferry system is in crisis,” the letter stated. “We are local elected officials from ferry communities across all corners of Puget Sound joining together to call upon our federal lawmakers to make robust investments in federal ferry programs to ensure Washington State Ferries (WSF) has needed resources to urgently restore full ferry system service.”

The letter said the Service Contingency Plan has the fleet operating at only 15 vessels, despite the fact that WSF has relayed need for 26 vessels at full service to allow for necessary planned maintenance.

“This drastic reduction in service is resulting in significant impacts on our residents and businesses who rely on ferry service,” according to the letter.

The group specifically asked federal legislators to provide for maximum funding for the Passenger Ferry Grant Program, the Ferry Service for Rural Communities Program and the Electric or Low-Emitting Ferry Pilot Program.

In its 2040 long range plan, WSF indicated that electrifying most of the fleet was a top priority. Adding service hours between Port Townsend and Coupeville and Kingston and Edmonds is also on the list, as is increasing passenger capacity on key routes to Seattle.

The letter was written and sent by members of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC). The PSRC planning group is comprised of nearly 100 members in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties, including the four county governments, cities and towns, ports, state and local transportation agencies and Tribal governments within the region.

Letter signatories included leaders from Island, Kitsap, King, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit and Snohomish counties and the cities of Anacortes, Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Des Moines, the Town of Friday Harbor, Port Orchard, Poulsbo and Seattle.

Port Townsend and Jefferson County elected officials do not participate in the PSRC, nor did they sign the letter.

“Jefferson County is not a part of the PSRC — only King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap are,” explained Kate Dean, District 1 Jefferson County commissioner. “That said, they have been convening the ferries work group, which I have participated in as my schedule allows. I was a part of the writing, and ultimately a signatory to, a similar letter which went to the Washington state Legislature earlier this year, which was successful in getting a bill passed to secure funding to study the impacts of ferry delays across the region.  I also testified in the Legislature on that bill.

Although Dean is not currently involved with the PSRC, she said she supports its efforts.

“I fully support the request, particularly because the Port Townsend-Coupeville run is the first to get service reductions and is greatly impacted by the lack of vessels currently in service,” Dean said. “I am confident that Representative Kilmer and senators Cantwell and Murray understand the importance of ferries to the region and will continue to be champions on behalf of our state ferries.

Dean said was in Washington D.C. in February and discussed ferries with federal legislators then. She added that she will return to the capital this week with the Puget Sound Partnership. “One of the messages we are carrying forward is to fund transportation projects that also have environmental benefits” Dean said. “As an example, we will be requesting funding for the Duckabush Estuary bridge, which will open up critical fish rearing habitat while replacing an old and degraded part of Highway 101.”

Washington State Ferries, a division of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), operates the largest ferry system in the United States. The system carried 24.5 million riders in 2017 through the operation of 10 routes and 20 terminals.

According to the agency’s long-range report, ridership is expected to grow more than 30 percent by 2040, climbing to nearly 32 million passengers a year. Over the next 20 years, 13 of Washington’s ferries will need replacement the report continues. Additionally, an increased number of relief or “standby” vessels are required to ensure reliable service and adequate time for vessel maintenance and preservation to keep ferries operating for up to 50 and 60 years, depending on the condition of the vessel.