Colman Ferry Dock renovation, March 2018, photo by SounderBruce

After a series of community meetings the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC) and its “Ferry Advisory Committee – Tarriff” (FAC-T) hold every two years, the WSTC is proposing a schedule of fare changes. Various options were presented to the WSTC at its June meeting, before the Commission settled on its proposal to go to the final round of public input.

The main fare policy changes include:

  • 2.5% fare increases for vehicles on October 1, 2019 and May 1, 2020
  • 2% fare increases for passengers on those same dates
  • a separate 25-cent increase to the “capital surcharge” (which is already 25 cents) on May 1, 2020, dedicated to building a new hybrid diesel/electric ferry. That surcharge increase will be roughly 12 cents for senior, disability, and youth fares.
  • increased penalties for reservation no-shows starting October 1, 2019
  • a 3-year pilot project for accepting payment using WSDOT’s Good-to-Go Pass
  • a 3-year pilot project for a low-income fare category.


Many other countries are converting their ferry fleets as quickly as the various government agencies can, partly because of the climate crisis, but also because the large lithium batteries are now price-competitive with burning diesel, depending on local regulations and taxes. WSDOT lists ferries as the source of 67% of its greenhouse-gas emissions, per a recent report by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Journal.

The recently-passed state transportation budget included funding for building a new hybrid diesel/electric ferry (funded primarily by the additional 25-cent “capital surcharge” on each regular fare) and converting one of its largest ferries to hybrid. Portage plug-in capability is estimated to start being available in 2021, and enable fully-battery-powered operations on the hybrid ferries by 2023. The portage power will be sourced from hydroelectric dams. As funding becomes available, the remaining two largest ferries will be converted. WSF’s Long-Range Plan calls for all new ferries to be hybrid.

Corvus Energy, based in British Columbia, is a primary manufacturer of ferry batteries, per a report from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Ironically, BC Ferries is having to go it slow on conversion due to the need to have its ferries able to run its longest routes, pushing the limits of the batteries’ storage power. Roughly 90% of Corvus’s batteries are exported to Europe and Asia, where regulations, fuel taxes, and subsidies make them economical, per the article.

Low-Income Fare Pilot Project

The low-income fare pilot project proposal would leverage existing transit agency low-income programs (e.g. ORCA LIFT and Kitsap Transit’s program that has been in place since 1985), and offer a discounted fare for those who have qualified through such programs. The amount of the discount is yet to be determined. However, the youth (6-18), senior (65+), and disability fares are a single consolidated discount fare on each route, and half or less of the regular fare on that route. A funding source is yet to be determined. The program would commence no earlier than 2020, after the State Legislature approves a funding source, and then after the WSTC subsequently approves the specific fares. It would last no more than three years, unless WSTC takes further action to make it ongoing.

Washington State Ferries is one of two agencies in the ORCA pod that does not have a low-income fare. The other is Pierce Transit. Community Transit and Everett Transit recently joined King County Metro, Sound Transit, Kitsap Transit, and Seattle Streetcars in offering low-income fares on all their services. The Seattle Center Monorail, which may start accepting ORCA cards as early as September of this year, would also have a low-income fare. Sound Transit funds ORCA LIFT qualification in Pierce County.

Several counties served by WSF are not set up to qualify riders for a low-income fare, nor do their transit agencies have such a category. That includes Island County, Jefferson County, San Juan County, and Skagit County. However, Skagit County charges $1 for a local ride and $2 for an inter-county Connector ride, Jefferson Transit charges $1.50 for an all-day pass, Island Transit is still free, and San Juan County lacks a public bus agency. The majority of WSF ridership is on routes connecting with ORCA-pod bus agencies with low-income fares serving each terminal.

Washington State Ferries is the only member of the ORCA pod that does not honor inter-agency transfers or passes. The low-income fare project proposal does not specifically mention honoring inter-agency transfers or passes, even just for low-income fare payers.

Katie Wilson, General Secretary of the Seattle Transit Riders’ Union, offered this response to the pilot project:

For low-income workers and students who commute by ferry, fares are definitely a hardship. Low-income families may not see a ferry ride as an option for a weekend or day trip because of the cost. A low-income fare on the ferries will increase ridership and improve the quality of life for many Washington State residents.

WSTC has been studying the possibility of a low-income fare category since fall of 2016. WSF requested that the low-income pilot project be included in the 2019 biennial fare proposal.

This project was then part of the package presented at community presentations, but received scant comment. However, it was one of the few issues on which the FAC-T, which advises WSTC on all fare change proposals, agreed. The FAC-T has historically been split between a faction wanting to keep passenger fares high, and a faction that wants to raise vehicle fares faster than passenger fares, percentagewise. But on this one issue, the FAC-T agreed, so long as funding comes from a state subsidy, not fare revenue.

If WSTC offers a discount to Good-to-Go users (the other proposed pilot project), it will have a net effect of raising passenger fares at a higher rate than vehicle fares. The Good-to-Go pilot project is nevertheless likely to improve boarding speed. It is within the Legislature’s and WSTC’s power to fund both pilot projects by raising the vehicle fares further, regardless of the advice from FAC-T.

You can participate in an online survey on the proposals, and cast “votes” on them. WSTC will also accept comments in writing and via email through July 29, and then hold a hearing and vote on August 6.

21 Replies to “State Transportation Commission proposes low-income pilot project for Washington State Ferries, surcharge to build electric ferry”

  1. Technology has really hit a point that I don’t understand why anyone is spending money on hybrid ICE-electric anymore. Electric technology has hit the point that they should skip that and build a full-electric ferry.

    Considering the amount of money you spend on maintaining ferries, why would you still include the inherently unreliable ICE engine when a good electric motor will last 2 times longer with half the maintenance?

      1. That said, with the distances involved in Puget Sound crossings, perhaps having a diesel engine running at an efficient level to charge the batteries will still be needed for the time-being. But these should definitely plug-in hybrids at the very least.

      2. Squints,

        See my post below, including the study produced for WSDOT on this project.

        The existing ferries are already diesel-electric “hybrids”. This conversion will make them into “plug-in hybrids”, with the generators reserved for emergencies only.

    1. Yeah, the electronics on our current fleet of ferries has been… uh, never mind.

      It’s more expensive, unproven, and nobody has looked at the cradle to grave environmental impact but FULL STEAM AHEAD!

      I guess building electric sprawl enablers is OK because somehow it’s percieved as zero emissions.

      I guess we can hope that the expense and certain extensive delays will sink the WSF system for good. Remember, the original intent with most of the “marine highway system” was a stop gap measure until we could build the bridges that allowed people to drive everywhere.

      1. “nobody has looked at the cradle to grave environmental impact”

        This is a general problem that needs more attention. I read an article recently that said we really need to increase our plastic bag recycling heavily so that no bags go into the landfill, and another article about companies offering reusable steel bottles for shampoo and other household products that they deliver to your door. The problems with these:

        1) China is no longer accepting our scrap plastics and the powers that be haven’t found a substitute, so we can’t increase the volume much or it’ll go to landfills anyway at our taxes’ expense.

        2) It takes water and soap to clean plastics for recycling. Sometimes you can use same the water your dishes used, but oil and grease require a lot of water and soap to clean out.

        3) The trucks that deliver your steel bottles use a lot of fossil fuels.

        So I think it’s better to recycle easy plastics, throw away oil-lined bottles, and think twice about shampoo delivery services. And get companies to avoid overpackaging.

      2. “I guess building electric sprawl enablers is OK because somehow it’s percieved as zero emissions.”

        Not every trip is a sprawl commute. The west sound has been inhabited by settlers since the 1800s (and by natives for millenia). They need basic supplies and mobility, and these don’t come by canoe anymore. There are navy bases in north Whidbey and Bremerton. Navy as in, must be adjacent to water for large ships, and active-duty and reserve seamen and seawomen who come from near and afar for varying lengths of time. The bridges didn’t get built in the 1960s because the west sound opposed them: they didn’t want sprawly growth disturbing their rural lands. So the ferries actually limit sprawl. And this project is not about increasing the ferries’ capacity but about making them more efficient.

        Still, it needs to be viewed in the context of total state emissions. The ferries may be 67% of WSDOT’s emissions, but what other transportation does WSDOT operate? Its other emissions are construction, maintenance, internal truck fleet, and offices. How do the ferries’ emissions compare to Washington’s cars, buses, trucks, and trains? Should we spend a lot of money to convert the ferries if the others make a thousand times more runs and are larger in aggregate? Or is WSDOT just doing it because it’s a state entity, while the bus companies can’t raise enough taxes to convert their fleet because of state tax limitations?

      3. There is no state bus agency. KC Metro is buying all hybrids for the new real south base. ST is largely at the mercy of what the local bus agencies maintain, hence the double-talls on Snohomish County routes. Pierce Transit attempted an all-methane fleet, which didn’t work out so well (and methane is also a very potent if shorter-lived greenhouse gas, if it reaches the atmosphere). The new STRIDE route base is an opportunity to get ST into the business of maintaining hybrid buses.

        While ST has done an outstanding job on making Link operations nearly-zero emissions, the cutting down of thousands of trees for Link construction is a major loss of ongoing carbon sink, with replacement trees not really kicking in as a significant carbon sink until after the important deadlines for bringing down carbon emissions and total CO2 in the atmosphere. Producing the cement for Link facilities is also a significant carbon footprint, unless they move quickly to incentivize the use of CO2-infused cement.

        At the very least, ST could consider being one of the first agencies to implement “climate notes” on all its capital projects. Hiring more scientists to do that is cheap. Climate change is going to be very, very expensive and consequential. ST might find more ways to bring down its climate footprint significantly if it made doing so a priority (which it has on the operations end).

      4. “the cutting down of thousands of trees for Link construction is a major loss of ongoing carbon sink”

        Remember to include the number of car trips not driven. There are currently no express buses between Snohomish County and most of north Seattle so people drive. The buses that do exist are sometimes forty-five minutes late due to unpredicable traffic, and run only every 15-30 minutes off-peak. That makes people on the margins of choosing bus or driving, drive. Link will change that equation.

  2. Can the West Seattle Water Taxi be electrified too? One would think that the battery demand wouldn’t be nearly as large as it is for the WSDOT ferries.

    1. Doc Maynard and Sally Fox are essentially brand new, so i don’t see them being replaced any time soon.

  3. That route is just shy of the Mukilteo-Clinton or Fauntleroy-Vashon distance…so it could work. Anyway, that particular link between Denmark and Sweden brings back a lot of great memories. It’s a valuable transit link, but it’s also a very frequent, and hilarious run for Swedes to buy cheap(er) booze. The ferries have a huge duty free store, very much oversized for a 15 minute crossing, and the demographic profile is skewed young and rowdy on the weekend. Also, on the Danish side, the ferry terminal is right next to Hamlet’s castle.

    1. Oops, this was in response to the YouTube video showing the electric ferry between Denmark and Sweden.

  4. My understanding was that the capability of being able to determine low-income and thus have a low-income fare was to use that to identify those in need and to isolate lower fares to them.

    However, if you take Everett Transit, the governing body – the Everett City Council – four of whom are up for re-election and two that are “seniors” or close to it, seniors pay two-thirds less than those deemed to be of “low income.” While a senior isn’t necessarily low-income, “low-income” spans all ages. However, seniors vote. The latter was the determining factor, not “need.”

    1. The low-income fares are higher than the Regional Reduced Fare Permit fares (for seniors 65+ and riders with disabilities) for Sound Transit, KC Metro, Seattle Streetcars, and Community Transit as well.

      RRFP-holders rode ET free up until a couple years ago, while youth have been getting a discount of 25% or more.

      By federal law, agencies that don’t have a peak-hour surcharge have to give seniors and riders with disabilities a discount of at least 50% from the regular fare.

      Almost nobody spoke up for consolidating ET’s discount fares at $1 when they surveyed riders at bus stops and online.

  5. For reference on the hybrid ferry project, here is the study produced by Elliott Bay Design Group for WSDOT.

    And the appendices:

    Something to keep in mind is that terminology is different in the marine industry compared to general usage in the automotive industry. Diesel-electric propulsion is very common in the marine industry, and in fact the ferries that are being proposed to be converted are already using this. The ships include 4 diesel generators that feed power directly into the 4 electric motors that actually drive the shaft. What is lacking is the ability to store power. So, by automotive definitions, the existing ferries are already hybrids.

    The hybridization project being proposed would add enough battery capacity so that the generators wouldn’t be used under normal operations. See section 4.2 of the first link above. The generators would only serve in a back-up role for emergencies and redundancy. The study outlines 6 different failure scenarios, two of which don’t even involve a generator kicking in. See section 4.3.

    1. I’ve read that study on electric ferries and believe even linked to it in a prior post. The technology is not compelling. Step back and ask why this “technological break through” is coming form Scandinavia rather than, oh say an island nation like Japan. Especially in Norway where the [oil & gas] industry plays a vital role in the Norwegian economy and the financing of the Norwegian welfare state..

      A new fleet of all-electric ferries with massive battery packs is going into production”

      The answer from the article, “authorities have demanded zero-emission technology solutions as part of the effort to reduce emissions from the country’s ferry fleet”. The irony of course is that government power stems from global use of fossil fuel.

  6. AJ brings up an important issue:

    I believe the state did a “well to whale’ analysis of the full impact of converting the fleet from Diesel to LNG.

    The US is flaring off natural gas at an amazing/alarming rate. Why? Because the value of this energy is less that the cost of using it. Why? Because diesel and gasoline production under current regulations is way more profitable.

    Until the US gets fully onboard with correcting this market imbalance virtually everything else is BS. Even as a first step, eliminate the regulations that have prevented the US from switching to a mostly diesel fleet of private vehicles like they’ve managed to do in Europe.

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