[UPDATE: An earlier version of this article claimed that WSDOT has purchased no new ferries for a decade. There have been four.]
The Washington State Ferry Service (WSF) is in the news. And not in a good way. After 70 years of steady, dependable service, it is falling apart. Out of the blue, we are lead to believe. But the falling apart has everything to do with that 70 years of steady, dependable service.
Seventy years ago, Washington State stepped in and took over a failing private ferry service. No fanfare. Literally with the stroke of a pen, a privately-owned public ferry service became state highways. The Seattle/Bremerton Route is part of State Highway 304. This is the highway I travel most frequently and on a trip into Seattle last week, this is what I gazed at out of the big, generous window. Not a stretch of concrete, fore or aft.
So why designate a public transit service as part of the highway system? It seems that back when the State took over the ferry service, it was intended to be a temporary fix until bridges could be built. But of course the bridges weren’t built. And the vessels became floating, rolling bridges that did the trick and even better – became iconic.
Unfortunately, narrative being what it is – powerful and capable of misrepresenting reality – the public ferry service indeed became state highways. Ferry service as bridges. Plan, fund, build and maintain to keep it from sinking into the sea for as long as possible.
There are 21 auto/passenger ferries in the current fleet. Nine are over 30 years old. There is only one back-up boat. According to WSF, sixteen additional vessels will be needed by 2040 to maintain current service. That up against a projection of a 30 percent expected growth in demand by that same year. These are facts that didn’t sneak up on anyone. Just a whole lot of patching going on.
And let’s talk ferry maritime personnel. The average age is 56. Over the next five years, thirty percent will be 65 and eligible for retirement. These are not the planners and managers. These are the men and women needed every day to operate, clean and maintain the vessels. From the entry level ordinary seamen to the captains. These also are facts that didn’t sneak up on anyone. A lot of overtime has been keeping that steady, dependable service operating. Add Covid-19 to that older at-risk workforce out on sick leave and having accumulated vacation to avoid or protest getting vaccinated, and the inevitable crisis came sooner. It took a pandemic for Washington State Ferries to commission an Overtime Analysis.
Now you may be thinking that framing the falling apart of our ferry system as a narrative problem is a stretch. The problem is a lack of funding by the State Legislature. But I ask you to look deeper for the underlying story. The story is the playbook from which program, funding and management decisions are made. The naming of ferry routes as highways may have been convenient for the budget office and seemingly innocuous to the sustainability of the service. It may have even justified the State taking over the service. But after 70 years traveling down the maritime highway, it is clear we have missed the boat. We have been following the wrong narrative.
The highway narrative at its core is static. Yes, vehicles move along it, but the road itself needs to be laid down solidly. Built to last with regular maintenance. This narrative works for highway projects, but not for public ferry service. The public transit narrative at its core is dynamic. By definition, it is about moving. And at its best, it embraces the public in its name. It is moving people. Old, young, rich, poor, brown, white, able bodied, abled differently. None moving under their owned power, but together sharing in the public’s power.
What keeps a transit system moving are the rolling stock and operators. This is the most fundamental fact of public transit. Hands down. And yet by everyone’s account it is the neglect of both these that are causing the ferry system to fail. It’s been 70 years depending on maintenance to carry the day. Waiting until you got to the end of the road with old boats and too many crew heading into the sunset. This could only have happened with a highway narrative.
WSF has looked to the other local public transit agencies to provide the dynamic narrative but what is lost is that dynamic narrative within the organization itself. WSF is the largest ferry system in the United States, and second in the world in carrying vehicles. But it is not world class. WSF is just beginning its electrification initiative as outlined in its 2020 report. The Norwegian Ministry of Transport started in 2012 with a competition for the design of the most environmentally friendly car/passenger ferry. This is a dynamic public transit narrative that this year can boast putting the world’s largest all-electric ferry into service. Is it unfair to compare Washington State to Norway? Maybe. But consider the importance for WSF to adopt a dynamic, public focused transit narrative.
The Salish Sea, Kitsap Penninsula, the San Juans and the other islands served by our ferry system, and the Olympic Penninsula to the west, need a conversation that starts with the public. What do we want this incredibly beautiful marine ecosystem and as yet largely undeveloped lands to be in another 70 years. It is home to a rich indigenous culture and small family owned farms. And still affordable housing close enough to get into an emerging world class city. And, of course, a delicate non-human world in the sea and on its lands. No other state in the continental United States has a gift of sea and land this big and rich, beautiful both visually and in its possibility for prioritizing abundant life. Lack of a dynamic public transit narrative will kill this possibility.
The WSF January 2021 Fact Sheet lists its top key function as “Transit agency” with “Marine highway” second. The facts don’t support that order. In his book on writing, A Swim In The Pond In The Rain, George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo (a mind-blowing narrative) says that “a story is a system for the transfer of energy.” “Energy made in the early pages gets transferred along through the story, passed from section to section, like a bucket of water headed for a fire, and the hope is that not a drop gets lost.” Let’s change narratives. Crisis is probably the best seed for change, so the time is ripe. Together we can write an award-winning public transit story for the next 70 years of Washington’s iconic, much loved, public ferry service.