Aerial photo of West and Eastbound WSF Bremerton ferries crossing
Aerial view of Highway 304 between Seattle and Bremerton
Image from Wikipedia

[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.

View of Puget Sound taken from inside Washington State Ferry from Seattle to Bremerton.
View from Washington Highway 304
Author’s image

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.

133 Replies to “The Fate of Washington State Highway 304”

  1. I don’t understand why everything is turned into a mode war. Highways and transit have the same issues when it comes to providing for preservation – it’s just much more exciting and politically rewarding to add service and cut taxes than it is to take care of things that exist already.

    1. Agreed. Most legacy public transit systems in the US have the exact same problem, with old rolling stock and a labor force skewed towards retirement age. I find it bizarre to suggest that if only WSF had better branded itself as public transit it would have had better funded. WSF certainly thinks of itself as a public transit agency, and if anything its secondary mission (marine highway) has historically had a more financially sustainable funding source through the state gas tax.

      Even NASA has like half its engineers at retirement age. This has nothing to do with mode and everything to do with poor long term management of an organization.

      1. Given the state’s dismal record of funding transit, I would argue that ferry service is substantially better when it’s SR-304 vs. just a transit route.

        Also, making the ferries a highway makes them eligible for gas tax money under the 18th amendment.

      2. Double agree. Including cars on routes makes the constituency much broader, and the classification of “marine highway” makes a clear legal & political case for statewide funding since travelers from across the state make use of the infrastructure. A foot ferry is by definition a local service, and it’s plausible that if WSF stopped moving cars between Bainbridge and Seattle, the WaLeg could decided that moving people between Bainbridge and Seattle is a problem for Kitsap and King to manage, with the legislature’s role limited to providing a funding mechanism.

        There’s good reason all the foot ferries that currently exist in Washington state are locally managed.

      3. No, Ross, the AUTO decision does not mean that fuel taxes can be used for “any purpose”. It says that a NEW tax which incidentally results in increased prices for fuel is Constitutional.

        There is a difference.

      4. @TT,

        You are absolutely correct. That decision does not say anything close to what Ross claims it does.

    2. The current infrastructure mode share is unbalanced, and continuing the status quo makes it worse. Transit is far behind in the US compared to other countries, and that causes a lot of environmental, mobility, health, social, economic, and resilience problems. We need to make transit catch up as much as we can.

      For instance, today’s Seattle Times has an editorial saying Seattle should invest in bridge maintenance. That’s true but almost all the bridge lanes are general-purpose, so transit and freight have to wait behind SOVs. The Times’ showcase is the West Seattle Bridge, and its concern is mainly for SOV drivers. That’s backwards. Other countries would prioritize transit first, peds and bikes second, freight third, and cars fourth. We’re planning a light rail extension to West Seattle, and some have suggested multiline BRT or a gondola as an alternative. Yet nobody in city or state government or the Seattle Times editorial board is considering supplementing any of them, or designing the bridge repair or replacement with priority for them.

    3. I have been on the ferry to the Salis sea. It seems to be well run but crowded due to commutors from and to Seattle. I would suggest that some ferries would be available to commuters only with monthly pass and some would be for day trips at a round ticket price. This would produce regular revenue. This is a unique service that is used by a large numbers of Washingtons and a great way to visit west Washington. I have used this ferry every time I am I Seattle. The staff on the landing and ferries are excellent. Please do not separate East and West Washington due to a fight over funds. Thank you for the ferry rides I have enjoyed and please continue them.

      1. Beverly,
        What you describe is the current system, splitting the riders between more boats. This revenue from fares cannot fund the WSF. This idea that fares should pay for public transit is a proven failure.

      2. That’s funny, as someone who lives on an island and occasionally uses the ferry to commute to Seattle, I feel that it’s the tourists that cause overcrowding. Ride a Monday morning west-east, and you will get a full but manageable ferry line. Friday evening east-west though, and you could be waiting hours. I also generally walk on and get transit on the other side, something tourists rarely do.

        To be clear, I have no problem with tourists using the ferry system and I’m happy to adjust my schedule to avoid the busy times, which I think many commuters do.

    4. I agree with your comment.

      One thing I have noticed is that all infrastructure in this country is failing. It started failing in the 1980s when we stopped funding maintenance and repair in order to drastically lower taxes on the very wealthiest citizens.

    5. Let’s not forget Tim Eyeman, the activist fool who sold the public on cutting car registration fees. And the public is to blame for buying his stupid idea. The ferries started failing faster after the owner of a $100,000 Porches now pays the same registration fee as a single mom school teacher who drives a used $6,000 Toyota.

      1. Lets be real about the entire transportation picture.

        Liberal fools have increased the amount of lane miles our food and manufacturing has to travel.

        China exported to the US less that 100 million containers before the climate change mantra started in 2000.

        Soon they tricked the kids into suing by 2015.

        The after math was China shipping to the United States 242 million containers.

        Why..How.. magic -wand-enomics and minimum wage-enomics….

        Our transportation system is run by liberal fools trying to limit the use of roads while simultaneously creating more use for roads. Then they get on blogs like this and try to spout meaningful retort by playing a blame game when nobody including Tim Eyman was going to change the fate of our state.

        Liberals have ruined the environment while claiming to be saving it.

        Evicting local and regional in favor of world was never going to be better for the environment./ They lied. But what’s new.

        Now they tax the b-jesus out of my drive to Walmart under the guise of saving the climate they spent the last 30 years ruining.

      2. I am reading all comments. Not one person has mentioned inslee. You look aid drinkers will continue to vote for him. Wake up are you all blind to what he has done to this state?

    6. I’m a truck driver, and was totally treated like a criminal when I started my truck after touching dock and ramp was down!
      These clowns that work for the ferry system are worthless as hell and it’s now wonder they are imploding!!! They call the cops on passengers for starting there truck , even though all the vehicles already had there’s running!!! THEY ARE RUNN BY IDIOTS, JUST LIKE THE STATE OF WASHINGTON!!

    1. Yes, I think that is a big part of the problem. The other issue is that maintenance doesn’t get adequate funding. That is what the author of this piece alludes to. Just as bridges are failing, so is the ferry system. It is a major political problem. It is much easier to push through a huge boondoggle, like 167-509, than it is to get adequate funding of the roads we have. Ferry service is no different. If there was a proposal for new ferry service, there would be a big ribbon cutting, with lots of excitement. But actually maintaining the existing system isn’t as exciting, and gets ignored. This goes for transit, roads, sewer systems, you name it.

    2. I am a retired ferry captain living in Chelan County. The problem with WSF is political all the way. When I was young, living at home with my parents, voting age adults always voted for State and community issues, like school’s. Today, people only vote for issues that concern those individuals. If you’re retired and your kids are long graduated from public schools, you tend to vote against raising taxes. If you live in Kitsap County, you would tend to support ferries. If you live where I do now, you could care less about ferries. Politicians only support issues that concern their constituents. Times have changed. We are only as good as those that lead us. These problems are growing nationally as well as well as locally. When I was working there, I always said, nothing will change until the face of Olympia changes. Kitsap County is growing as people migrate out of Seattle and the”I”5 corridor. If you’re reason for living in and around one of the most beautiful fiord’s in the world, then supporting the ferry system as part of the transportation infrastructure is definitely in your future needs. If you don’t like living near all this water, can I suggest moving to Nebraska or Kansas. They don’t have these problems to contend with.

      1. Well said, sir.

        I’m an early Boomer and have come to the conclusion that we did indeed ruin the country. Not for the reasons that the Gen X’ers claim [e.g. we spent all their money]. Nope, we’re actually less materialistic than they are.

        But with our insistence on “doing our own thing” we opened wide the gates on a flood of selfish and self-centered politics

      2. Way to go Chris , who put u on the unionised system? Remember me Chris ,your old buddy Wayne T.

      3. When I was young, living at home with my parents, voting age adults always voted for State and community issues, like school’s. Today, people only vote for issues that concern those individuals.
        We’re of a similar vintage. Sales tax back then was ~7%. Much easier to vote yes back then than +10% sales tax we have now. The trick is administrative salaries is never voted on. All the pork is included in the general budget and stuff that matters is a special levy.

      4. Well said, the rest only think they know what’s going on yoi have to work it to know it.
        Retired ferry worker.

  2. So what are the alternatives to ferries that could be explored?

    Would any routes work for a gondola? Maybe West Seattle to Vashon to Southworth?

    Car trains in a tunnel under Puget Sound?

    Floating submerged tunnel?

    Build the bridges the author mentioned were the original plan?

    Or… the most radical suggestion of all: maybe the legislature could actually fund the ferries appropriately! I know.. weird.

    1. Yes, adequately funding a new fleet would be a good starting point.

      Otherwise, go for a ‘ferry diet.’ Analogous to a road diet, WSF would need to intentionally move less vehicles. I think this would be unacceptable for a route like San Juan with no alternatives, but it is plausible for routes that have good connections to public transit (right now, only the Seattle routes) to shift some or all of the runs to foot ferries.

      Personally, I think a ferry diet is a bad idea. For the cross sound routes, the larger boats make for a much more comfortable ride; being a walk-on on a car ferry is like rider Sounder, with space to spread out and relax or work. A foot ferry is like riding a local bus – it’ll get you there fast, but you can’t do much but stay in your seat and look at your phone. The foot ferries may provide higher frequencies, but fully loaded with a thousand people, the big car ferries are far more cost effective to operate than a full fleet of foot ferries scurrying back and forth … here again, it’s like running a dozen buses vs one Sounder train; as long as you can fill up the big train and run it at decent frequency, it’s better to go with the bigger vehicle.

      1. plausible for routes that have good connections to public transit (right now, only the Seattle routes)
        But only on the Seattle side. There’s no room to park all the cars that would have to drive to the ferry on the west side and the area is so spread out bus service isn’t feasible. You’d have to fund a bunch of P&Rs with mostly peak only service that would cost more than funding WSF.

      2. Kitsap Transit has a set of P&Rs and feeder buses already, and the Kitsap’s fast ferry levy directly funds more bus service to the ferry terminals. Also, Bremerton and Bainbridge are both walkable/bikeable from the ferry terminals.

        I think your criticism is more salient to some of the other routes. Edmonds is walkable (up a hill) but Kingston is hard to get to. Port Townsend is lovely but Coupville is hard to get to. Clinton-Mulkiteo would require tighter coordination between IT and either CT or ST.

      3. People are coming from all over the County to ride the ferry. The existing P&R lots are full. Anyone that would/could walk or bike is already doing that to save the cost of driving and, if in Seattle, parking. I think it has been pointed out the cost of moving foot passengers on the car ferries is much less than providing a bunch of new passenger only routes. If the funding exists it makes more sense to just fund more sailings with the existing equipment. The problem is money not mode.

      4. I think it would be hard to pull off a “ferry diet”. I do think a transition from mostly car ferries to mostly passenger ferries could occur though. That is similar, as my guess is it is lot cheaper to run a passenger ferry than a car ferry.

        The first thing I would like to see (other than adequate funding of the ferry system) is all car ferries removed from downtown Seattle. I don’t think the current system does anyone any good. I’m sure there are people who appreciate being right in the heart of things, but I also think there are people who would rather be in West Seattle or Edmonds, where there is a lot less traffic.

        The next step is to run the passenger ferries more often. After that, I would like to see transit improved on both sides. Downtown Seattle and West Seattle both have good transit options. Edmonds could use a lot of improvement, but it might make more sense to improve the passenger service from Kingston to downtown Seattle. On the east side of the Sound, Mukilteo stands out as an area that could use better bus service, if the goal is to reduce the number of car ferries. I could see Clinton-Mukilteo going with passenger and car ferries every hour, reducing the number of car ferries in half. But that only makes sense if you have a bus ready to quickly connect you to both Everett or Lynnwood when you get to Mukilteo.

        It looks to me like there is some service on the west side, in various places. I wouldn’t look to build big park and ride lots at the ferry terminals, but shuttle service, from other lots (along with better transit overall). Some of this exists now, but would have to be improved. From a tourist standpoint, I could see some new seasonal passenger ferries, along with better local transit options. For example, Edmonds or Seattle to Port Angeles, along with a shuttle up to Hurricane Ridge. And of, course, Edmonds or Seattle to Port Townsend.

        All of this would cost a bunch, and with a few possible exceptions, you would probably have just as much driving demand. You can cut the number of car ferries, and raise the price of driving onto the ferry, but if you make it too hard to drive onto the ferry, lots of people will drive around. But in the long run this is the direction we should be moving, if the goal is to treat the ferries like public transit, not a highway.

        It is also the direction we are moving, albeit slowly. From 2002 to 2018, the number of vehicles went down. So did the number of people riding in cars. But the number of foot passengers went up, and exceeds the number riding in cars (by about 10%). Bainbridge Island and Bremerton account for the lion’s share of the foot passengers. They have a lot more walk-on riders than car riders. Edmonds-Kingston and Mukilteo-Clinton have the numbers reversed, and a lot of cars. That is the area I would focus on, with improvements like those mentioned above.

        Oh, I would also beef up passenger ferry service, while slowly weaning car ferry service. Otherwise you are likely to get a big negative political response, and be back to where you started. It is sort of like “defunding police”. You want to start by providing the kind of social service framework that countries with a lot fewer police (and a lot less crime) have. Then you reduce the number of police. Otherwise reactionaries will gain power, and you are screwed.

      5. Yeah, for a ferry diet I had in mind something like you suggested for Clinton-Mulkiteo. Instead of running 2 car ferries, run 1 car ferry and then 1 foot ferry and have better connecting bus service in both direction, with the foot ferry presumably much cheaper to both build and operate compared to replacing a car ferry at end of life. Perhaps the default/peak service can be 2 car ferries; when a car ferry is out for repairs or demand is slack midday, the foot ferry can run to maintain frequency at lower cost.

        But for a route like Bainbridge and Bremerton, I think it makes sense to continue to run car ferries forever, given the length and quality of the run (much of it is open sea) and the sheer number of people riding. Instead, foot ferries should be viewed as a way to provide overlay express service, which is exactly what KT is doing.

        Fundamentally, what should happen is what Ross highlights is already happening. The premium to drive a car should steadily increase, particularly at peak, to minimize the need for lengthy vehicle queues, and the connecting transit service should steadily improve at all ferry terminals. As there is a steady mode shift, replacement car ferries can be marginally smaller and therefore cheaper to build and operate than a like-for-like replacement. A generation from now, WSF probably runs the same number of car ferries on the same set of routes, but vehicle counts are flat or down while passenger counts grow robustly.

      6. Instead of running 2 car ferries [at Clinton-Mulkiteo] run 1 car ferry and then 1 foot ferry and have better connecting bus service in both directions…

        But for a route like Bainbridge and Bremerton, I think it makes sense to continue to run car ferries forever, given the length and quality of the run

        If anything, the case for reducing the number of car ferries is stronger at Bainbridge and Bremerton. There are way more foot passengers with Bremerton and Bainbridge than Clinton-Mulkiteo, and way fewer cars. It would be much easier to get away with fewer car ferries and more passenger ferries.

        In the long run, I would send the car ferries to West Seattle. It is crazy that we dump thousands of cars a day in the heart of Seattle. Vancouver doesn’t do that. It is an outdated approach. I would start by adding more passenger ferries, shrinking the number of car ferries, and then, when there aren’t that many car ferries to downtown Seattle, send them to West Seattle, and add a bunch of passenger ferries to Seattle.

      7. I would be very weary about moving car ferries away from downtown. In theory, you could have separate boats for passengers that go downtown. In practice, the passenger service will be chronically underfunded, and lack the frequency and span that the car service gets.

        At least if passengers and cars share a boat, passengers are guaranteed the same frequency and span of service that drivers get. That’s huge, and well worth putting up with some traffic congestion downtown to get. Not having to operate separate boats also saves the transportation system money overall and probably means less pollution.

        I’m imagining a hypothetical where the Bainbridge car ferry goes to Harbor Island, while a weekday-daytime-only passenger ferry continues to go downtown. It eliminates some cars downtown, which is good, but makes the passenger ferry experience for people not driving much, much worse.

      8. I have learned that having a 30 minute ferry is like having a 15 minute bus. Once you get to that frequency, you don’t need to plan to far in advance, you just go when you go and there will be a ferry before too long.

        Transit connection need to be much better on both sides to make a foot ferry replace a car ferry. You would need to quadruple the number of weekday trips plus add weekend service. Still, that’s probably cheaper than building and operating a ferry, plus it benefits a lot of people not riding the ferry.

      9. If you combine Bremerton and Bainbridge, looks like pre-COVID there were slightly more vehicles on those Seattle routes than Edmunds or Mukilteo?
        psrc.org/sites/default/files/trend-ferry-ridership201811_0.pdf

        The fact that the walk-ons and car use the same ferry terminal creates immense cost savings; route the car ferry to Harbor Island would require either doubling the passenger capacity on the route, as all the walk-ons would shift to the passenger ferry leaving the car ferries mostly unutilized, or it would require running a dedicated bus shuttle system from Harbor Island to downtown. Presumably the Seattle routes are by far the most cost effective because they fill up the vehicle bays and have a ton of walk-on passengers? Splitting the modes creates a modestly better urban experience at the terminal but results in either a much more expensive system to operate or a degraded experience for one or both sets of users. I’ve seen people walk on/off at Anacortes and it’s perfectly safe but also clearly unpleasant unless they someone is meeting them in a vehicle. Additionally, this change does nothing for the terminal setup in Bainbridge or Bremerton.

        The biggest downside of mixing cars and walk-ons is the queuing of vehicles waiting to board, and this can be mitigated by raising peak fares.

        I do not consider the size of the boat to be a downside; in the open sea crossing the Sound, this is asset. I’ve ridden many ferries around the world and if I was a regular commuter I would much much rather ride a WSF than something the size of the Clipper or smaller.

        Could the next generation vessels have less car capacity and more space for walk-ons/bikers, and fare shifted so there is more of a premium to bring on a vehicle? Sure! But that’s very different than transitioning away from vehicles entirely.

    2. Keep in mind that ferry routes like Seattle-Bainbridge, Seattle-Bremerton, and Edmonds-Kingston together carry more riders than the rest of the ferry system, and that the last time WSF reported per-route costs, the Bainbridge route not only covered its costs, but had. 10% surplus.

      Alternatives thus need not replace all of the ferries, but can start with the busiest routes.

      I suggested a light rail tunnel to avoid the cost of replacing the ferries to Bainbridge and Bremerton on Page 2 years ago, with details on https://www.kitsapstreetcar.org/sound-transit/

      The feedback was cost cost cost, but that post was before the multi-billion 2040 WSF capital plan and before the State plan on airport growth through 2040.

      Looking at those future costs and the cost of operating new ferries through 2090 (ferries last for 60 year) and digging a tunnel becomes a reasonable option. Even more so given an untapped tax base in Kitsap County to help fill the gaps in Sound Transit.

      BTW, thank you all for helping pay for my and my neighbor’s ferries but also for fully funding all the light rail I get to enjoy for $2.75 once we cross the sea. All of WA pays for the ferries but only three counties pay for Sound Transit. Thousands of us commuters would be happy to chip in if only we could hop the train to Seattle (with 20 minute head time) instead of the ferry (with 50-100 minutes between boats).

    3. The shortest ferry runs, from shortest to longer, are Southworth-Vashon, Point Defiance-Tahlequah, Mukilteo-Clinton, Fauntleroy-Vashon, and Edmonds-Kingston. Port Townsend-Coupeville is of similar length to Seattle-Bainbridge, at least based on the travel time WSDOMA currently lists, but the water might be shallower than Mukilteo-Clinton. Seattle-Bremerton and Anacortes-San Juans are too long and, at least in the Bremerton run’s case, too windy to be directly replaced by fixed infrastructure.

    4. Agree.
      You can’t take something a Way, if you don’t have a substitute or a good answer to the problem.

  3. “No other state in the union has a gift of sea and land this big and rich, beautiful both visually and in its possibility for prioritizing abundant life. ”

    The Alaska Marine Highway System would like to have a word with you.

    1. The Alaska state ferry system isn’t any more because of funding squabbles among its citizenry.
      Larger P&R lots, walkon boats, and higher fares would help solve many of the problems here in WA

  4. I think the ferry network could have built a larger political constituency if WSF had not made being a walk-on passenger cost-prohibitive.

    For years, the car lobby side on the board that sets fares kept arguing that pedestrians were being subsidized and cars were being charged too much. In reality, the marginal cost per rider of adding more passengers is simply the cost of adding more life rafts. The marginal cost per car is much more — the cost of adding more car-based ferries to the fleet, divided by the space for each car. There is a whole lot of space for more passengers. I would love to ride the ferries a lot more, if it did not cost almost the same as bringing a car onto the car sewer level(s) of the ferry.

    WSF can still get more people on the ferries by just adding more life rafts, lowering passenger fares, accepting inter-agency transfers via the PugetPass, and adopting a LIFT fare. Indeed, doing all that might serve more people than adding more car ferries would.

    Instead of focusing the cameras on the lines of cars, focus the cameras at how empty the passenger decks are (and were, even before the pandemic). That’s not a maintenance failure. That’s a policy failure.

    Until then, my main concern is that no new non-electric car ferries be built. Want my help? Make walking onto the ferry cost a whole lot less.

    1. Given the central point of this article is lack of investment in the fleet , isn’t the marginal cost of moving more cars a longer queue at the dock until the last car makes the trip in the evening?

      Yes, it would be better if WSF rationed vehicle space through higher peak prices rather than long queues, but I’m skeptical there is material latent demand for ferry ridership just waiting for a lower fare. Most WSF trips aren’t spontaneous and are likely rather price inelastic. Sure, better fare integration would help, but arguing for something like LIFT (looks like they already have youth & senior discounts) is either reduction in fare or a roundabout way to advocate for more funding for operations.

      1. The investment in infrastructure isn’t just in vehicles. It is also in personnel. You can’t just make the remaining workforce work 16-hour days to clear the car queue with the existing fleet working a longer day. And then the ferries would still have to report for mileage-based maintenance more often. Which means hiring more mechanics or making the mechanics work more overtime.

        Although, in regards to the staffing issues, I would hope the public-facing ferry staff would make the responsible personal choice to get the free shot(s), and thereby do their part to protect their own lives and the lives of their passengers. To the extent that most of the hold-outs have finally gotten the free shot(s), I support the mandate. I hope those who did hold out beyond the deadline go have that crucial conversation with their doctor, decide to do what the overwhelming data is telling them to do, and get the shot(s), and then hopefully get welcomed back to their job by the state.

        The staffing shortages will be alleviated, somewhat, in the long run, by having a fully-vaccinated workforce. It might even make the job more attractive for new applicants. As a potential (but priced-out) rider, I am happy to put up with the temporary staff shortages as some of the staff work through their (mostly unfounded) misgivings about the vaccines. But I digress…

        I would argue that part of clearing the queue is incentivizing the choice to ride across and take local transit (which would mean accepting PugetPass). If it costs less to just drive (because most of the cost is paying for the passengers in the car), we’re missing an opportunity to shorten the queue.

        I don’t mean to imply that pedestrians and car riders are two separate classes of riders. I do mean to imply that WSF’s policies have incentivized those with a choice to sit in the car queue rather than string together a transit-based trip.

      2. Also, a word about “demand”. We may assume “demand” means ridership. WSF issues a “traffic report” to show demand, but it at least breaks out vehicles from passengers. We need to be specific whether we are talking about “ridership demand” or “vehicle demand” to know if we are even using the correct metric.

        We’ll never know if there is latent elastic ridership demand unless we test the hypothesis with different fares and fare partial exemptions.

      3. The idea of peak fares is elegant and could generate funding required to run some more peak only boats. Although there may be union pay issues running less than 8 hour shifts or a split shift.

        Another way to do it is add the equivalent of HOT lanes to the marine highway. You have one toll booth with variable price displayed as you approach the ferry terminal and all vehicles paying the premium are routed to lanes that board first. The overflow gets loaded 1st come 1st serve until the boat’s full.

      4. “You can’t just make the remaining workforce work 16-hour days to clear the car queue with the existing fleet working a longer day.” Aside from a summer weekend, are there any routes where car queue for more than a few hours a day? If WSJ jacked up peak prices to remove queuing, it might be able to remove a few peak trips but the daily span of service would be the same.

        “…WSF’s policies have incentivized those with a choice to sit in the car queue rather than string together a transit-based trip.” WSF policies manifestly incentivize transit-based trips. It is cheaper to not take a care on the ferry. People on bikes gets off the ferry first. There are no routes in which a walk-up rider cannot get on the immediate next ferry, while all cars must queue. The reason mode share is skewed toward cars has everything to do with the land use around ferry terminals and the generally poor connecting transit options and little to do with WSF policies.

        You can argue WSF should incentivize non-car trips even more by increasing the fare gap between car and non-car trip, but to argue WSF is incentivizing the marginal cars trip over the marginal walk-on rider is simply wrong. For the aspects of the trip under WSF control, it is always cheaper and faster to walk on to the ferry.

    2. I believe life rafts are also needed for the occupants of the cars which drive on to the ferry;)

    3. Every inspected vessel (all WSF ferries are) have a USCG COI (cert. Of inspection) that list the exact minimum number of crew to operate the vessel and the maximum number of passengers allowed. You can not just add life rafts and add more passengers. The COI is determined by the USCG.

      1. My understanding is that the COI is based in part on the availability of life rafts. And that they only stock so many rafts because they don’t see more passenger demand.

        Regardless, I’ve only seen passengers have to wait for the next ferry once: on Superbowl Parade Day.

        I’m pretty sure the fare is set to try to maximize revenue, not to ration the allowed passenger slots. But since car fares still resist being raised to the point the queues shrink, fare revenue is clearly not being maximized. The fares continue to be set by a small board that irrationally sees passengers as not paying their “fair” share, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the cars could be charged much more to make up for reducing passenger fares to fill more of the deck and thereby increase ridership, and possibly fare revenue too.

  5. “Nine are over 30 years old and no new ferries have been added in a decade.”

    I keep rereading this sentence. I must be missing something … The MV Chimacum, on the Brem/Seattle run (otherwise known as marine highway 304), went into service in 2017.

    It is part of the Olympic Class, of which four boats have gone into service since 2014 (including the Chimmy).

    Don’t mean to be argumentative, or not picky, just, not sure what to make of this.

    1. While the author got that particular detail wrong, the overall point was correct. 14 of the 21 boats in the fleet were built more than 20 years ago., and half of the fleet is over 30 years old. Also three of the newest are really only useful on the smallest two or maybe three routes in the system.

      The WSF fleet currently consists of:
      Evergreen State class (only Tillikum remaining, built 1959)
      Super class (2 of 4 remaining, built 1967-68)
      Jumbo class (2 boats, built 1972-73)
      Issaquah class (6 boats, built 1979-1982)
      Jumbo Mark II class (3 boats, built 1997-99)
      Kwa-di Tabil class (3 boats, built 2010-12)
      Olympic class (4 boats, built 2014-2018)

      There’s also one more Olympic-class boat under construction now, and another 4 authorized but not funded. These would be hybrid-electric, rather than straight diesel-powered.

      1. A serious error like that does mean this entire article needs a rewriting. It is not mostly correct. We are short at least two of those 144 vehicle ferries. One is about to be scheduled.

      2. Yeah, that would’ve been good to mention. Since 2000, WSF has retired 10 ferries and only built 7 (I’m not counting pax-only ferries here). A small reduction would probably be okay, but we never fully replaced the combined capability of the various small ferries (Steel Electrics + Rhody and Hiyu) with the KdT’s, and now we’re down two Supers as well with only Suquamish as a replacement. WSF has no real spare boats to speak of, and this has also drastically cut into maintenance downtime. WSF has even admitted that the Issaquahs will need to be retired early because we’re working them too hard.

        As of right now, WSF needs near-term replacements for Tillikum, Kaleetan, and Yakima, plus a fourth ferry to restore lost spare/maintenance capacity. After that you have replacements for the Jumbos and the Issaquahs coming up starting around 2030, so there’s no time to lose.

    2. I had the same thought, as well as that there is a plan to start on the next 5 Olympic class ferries soon. As an engineer with background in electric drives, I have been following the electrification project with interest. I’d love to work on the project, but what struck me is how tough it was to even figure out who’s doing the work or much about the hybrid design approach. I believe the WSF would do well to share a bit more on the progress and build of the boats. But more than that, this project is a big, exciting deal for our future. I won’t go as far to suggest Tesla could or should be involved, but I believe getting the right companies with the right balance of innovation and established capabilities is an injection the WSF sorely needs.

  6. I wonder how flexible the legislature could get with the definition of a “highway” that would allow further taxation of fuels and/or VMT to be contributed towards not just improved ferry service, but allowing WSDOT to build railways and electric vehicle charging facilities. My understanding is that there are a few passes in the Cascades that could use significant upgrades to allow for HSR and freight at higher capacities. If we could use gas tax dollars to help electrify our transportation network state-wide, it would allow the State to actually work towards its proclaimed climate goals.

    1. We know darn well who in the state senate’s D leadership is trying to force as many funding sources as possible, not just gas tax, to be dedicated to building more and wider highways.

  7. People ask, why ferries rather than bridges or tunnels? The answer is simple: geography.

    The only spot in the Salish Sea that can effectively be spanned has been, with three bridges, one of which famously failed seventy years ago. The next-shortest link, Pt. Defiance-Tallequah, would require a bridge with a span more than 1.5 times longer that the world’s longest current span. What, put a pier in the middle? It’s 300 feet deep. Which also pretty much rules out a tunnel… and very few people want to travel this particular route anyway!

    Alki-Bainbridge? Now we’re talking almost three times the world’s longest span… and depths of about 700 feet, in case you thought a tunnel might be feasible. Edmonds-Kingston is 3.5 times the longest extant span, though “only” 600 feet deep. Even Mukilteo-Whidbey is over two miles of span and 600 feet deep. (Depths mean tunnel drilling is beyond current technology, venting exhaust is an engineering feat in itself, and you’d need many miles of approach highway in our constrained city to descend/climb 600 feet.)

    Floating bridge? Well, we have cargo ships needing passage constantly, anchors that have to be set 700 feet below the surface (each cable alone might weigh more than the span it tries to hold in place), fierce winds, stiff currents that change direction four times a day. So that’s not happening. And probably more expensive than the current ferry system, too.

    So it’s ferries, or drive around. Except for the San Juans. Ferries only.

      1. “As of 2016, a submerged floating tunnel has never been built.”

        It’s an interesting concept, but I’d prefer not to pioneer yet another new mode in this region. Better to just run a good ferry fleet.

    1. Thank you for a bracing summary of the formidable challenges to any fixed crossing of Puget Sound. That old snapping turtle “Reality” is just itching to bite these pie-in-the-sky fantasies in the butt.

      And, really, do we want to make Kitsap County into another Lynnwood?

    2. People are also being asked about passenger ferries vs. car ferries, and voting to fund passenger ferries.

      Indeed, it was an alliance of the passenger ferry lobby and light rail advocates that got both ST3 and the Kitsap passenger ferries to the ballot.

    3. Excellent rebuttal. Thanks for including so many realities, otherwise known as facts. We really need our ferry system, cars and all. It is vital to our state. I use it each week and it’s reliability is critical. Just think of all those boat loads of cars driving around to reach destinations, including hospitals, airports, etc, now served by ferry. If anything we need more routes and more sailings.

    4. 700 feet deep isn’t a problem. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Undersea_tunnel includes multiple undersea tunnels at that or greater depths. And lengths longer than the 6 miles between Alki and Wilnslow or Alki and Manchester.

      Most of those tunnels are rail, not car. The ferries carry far more walk-ons than drive-ons. The ferry is far more used to commute from Kitsap and Vashon to jobs in King County than anything else. That is a job for lightrail.

    5. It says a lot at how much the powers that be had car-mania in the 50s that they considered the state taking over the hour-long Seattle-Bremerton run, or even the even longer Anacortes-San Juans run that serves the San Juans as a loop (and even traveling directly from Anacortes to Lopez, Orcas, or Shaw takes longer than any other non-Bremerton run in the system), a stopgap for eventual replacement with bridges, if even Port Defiance-Tahlequah would be an unprecedented feat of engineering.

      1. Everyone had car-mania in the 50s. The bigger the tail fins the better. Vashon could have a bridge over Clovos Passage like Bainbridge does over Agate Pass but the residents have fought it tooth and nail. Vashon has a lot of rich people; lots of Hollywood actors. They want to keep it exclusive and have someone else pay the cost of transportation. With a bridge would also come County Water and sewer and there would be pressure to upzone. There’s really no reason to continue the Pt Defiance route. If people on the Island want service to Tacoma they can damn well pay for it. Pierce Transit runs all the ferry service to places like Fox Island.

  8. It’s pretty standard for states to make ferries part of the highway system. It’s considered the “replacement” if no bridge is built in many cases. It also makes ferry subsidies eligible for gasoline tax funds. Plus, part of the capital investment are also terminals and holding areas for cars.

    Just like with transit, the highway system is underfunded. For that matter, all of our transportation systems are physically declining. Lots of things were built new between 1945 and 1980 and need replacement.

    Rather than quibble about modal definitions, I think there needs to be a broader consensus to greatly increase transportation funds. Battling the highway lobby is counter productive given the larger need.

    I think these reforms are needed:
    1. A statewide funding commitment to regional transit as part of travel needs. Ferries are like express buses or Sounder or Cascades when no vehicles are on board. The current system just perpetrates the notion that the state doesn’t need to fund longer distance transit and instead makes individual exceptions like funding the WSF operations. WSF subsidies could be eligible for regional transit travel funds if the state stepped up to its funding role like we find in many other states.
    2. A general change in transportation funding levels. Our systems are all in need of rehab and we are falling behind. We can’t “solve” the problem using current sources.
    3. An open discussion about evaluating ferry service to determine what’s important and if there are better business models to operate ferries. I don’t have a strong sense about whether some routes are inefficiently given resources, are priced incorrectly or can be better run with a different set of labor rules and job duties. Should we have fewer, more frequent routes? Should we revisit pricing policies for both cars and people? Should we radically increase opportunities for more concessions to recover some costs? Is WSF land being used effectively or have value in land leases for other uses? I just don’t know.

  9. The ferries aren’t unique. We had a generation of people decide that low taxes were more important than investing in robust infrastructure, while the bridges, roads, ports, etc. their parents built rotted into the ground.

    A generation of Americans wanted it cheap more than they wanted it good. And it shows.

    How do you change that? Start telling people they get what they pay for until they believe it.

    1. Yes, this. It is a major political problem. Making it worse, there are folks who want new things, while they ignore old things falling apart.

      A large part of the problem is the dysfunctional nature of the Republican Party.

      “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”.

      “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

      ““I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around a campfire but are lousy in politics.”

      Those are quotes from the three most influential Republicans of our time. If you don’t believe that government can play a positive influence in our life, and you believe that reaching across the aisle is a sign of weakness, you end up with crap.

      Worse yet, you enter into a cycle where the failings of government are used as excuses for more cuts. Trump cut funding for agencies designed to deal with and stop the spread of a pandemic (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/05/10/top-white-house-official-in-charge-of-pandemic-response-exits-abruptly/). Note the date — this was well over a year before COVID-19. Within a couple years, Trump was fighting with Fauci and the CDC, blaming them for our poor response. This is a common tactic. Cut funding, see a big problem, then blame the issue on the government (and call for more privatization). It happens with schools, transit, veteran health service, you name it.

  10. Another point worth mentioning about the ferry system is that it is used not just to transport people, but also freight. Just like traditional highways, lots of trucks ride the ferry system, and just about anything you can get on Vashon Island, from groceries to building materials ultimately gets there from a truck riding the ferry.

    1. There’s also a navy base in Bremerton. The feds would pressure the state to keep up ferry service. For instance, reservists travel both directions to different bases.

    2. It is to the freight lobby’s advantage to lobby to raise regular car fares and various other vehicle fares. Heck, it may even be to the advantage of freight to lobby to raise freight fares, so trucks don’t have to expensively sit in line and wait for the next ferry.

      For the sake of freight, and those who depend on what it is delivering, WSF ought to keep raising vehicle fares, more often, until the queues clear with each sailing, even if it means variable pricing and peak surcharges (for the vehicles, not the people, for whom there is no space shortage).

      1. I believe freight, at least semi size already has priority loading. Because of ballast issues they are always loaded right after bikes and motorcycles in the center of the lower deck. Other priority loads include emergency vehicles and horse/livestock transport.

        Foot passengers and car occupants other than the driver are only charged one direction. The Kitsap Fast Ferries charge $2 EB and $10 WB. I think this is supposed to advantage Kitsap County residents since they are paying .3% sales tax to fund the ferry service. But I don’t understand how this works since it seems you always have to purchase a one way fare unless you have a monthly pass.

  11. Part of the problem with staffing is that new hires have to spend around 3 years working on-call, up to 20 hours in the winter and up to 40 hours in the summer.

    20 hours a week doesn’t really cut it for Puget Sound cost of living, and because of the on-call nature you can’t really get another job (outside of maybe gig work) to supplement your income.

    (source: https://wsdot.wa.gov/Employment/ocos_faq.htm)

    1. That is a major issue. Due to collective bargining agreements WSF also exclusively promotes from within it’s deck and engineering crew which means experienced mid-career mariners can only enter the WSF workforce from the bottom while being on-call. You don’t make Captains and Chief Engineers out of wipers and deckhands in a couple of years but there’s not way to transition in people from other sectors of the industry. secotors

    2. wow! Why would anyone agree to come work on a ferry if at best it’s going to be part time for three years?

      What a broken system this is!

    3. Wow, from this FAQ, I learned that you also have to shave. Is that a safety requirement of some sort? I really can’t imagine why it would matter. Add that to the list of why my husband doesn’t want to work on the ferries.

      Seems like WSDOT has some low-hanging fruit still when it comes to recruiting. They only recently started hiring people year-round.

    4. No wonder they’re having staffing troubles. $21-23 per hour entry level pay, with a requirement to be on-call for 3 years, a max of 20 hours a week outside the summer, while also needing to travel up to 35 miles to reach assigned locations is…pretty terrible. That totals something like $28k/year.

      You can get an entry level full time food service job that pays $17-20 with a “can do attitude,” “ability to work independently,” and “passion for people.” Amazon warehouse associates are hired at $17-23/hour, either full time or with consistent part time hours and again with little in the way of concrete qualifications. And of course the actual highway maintenance workers are hired at $43-53k full time salaried positions in the Puget Sound area.

      Seems like Washington State Ferries needs to clean house in their HR team and bring in people with a reasonable understanding of what the current labor market is like.

      1. I’d be willing to bet that those labor rates, and entry level work rules were set in place after negotiation with the union. It’s the union’s job to make sure that it’s members jobs are secure and pay as well as possible, and making it harder to hire new people falls right in line with both of these things.

        In other words I think that “cleaning house” in the HR team isn’t really going to do much.

  12. Shaving may have to do with safety masking in case of fighting fires or similar emergencies. The pay is OK to good, benefits are great, most workers seem to like the job, but those short working hours are a killer in a competitive job martet. Also given that 4 of the central Puget Sound routes are in Kitsap county and that those ferries are ‘stored’ over night on the Kitsap side, it helps to live on the Peninsula.

  13. i don’t understand. i’ve lived here for 50 years. all ferries should be replaced with bridges, chunnels, or tubes. enough all ready. if i was governor the first thing i would do is replace the ferry system. no one would lose their job

    1. …chunnels or tubes

      You don’t understand “water pressure”, do you? Or, for that matter, “checks and balances”.

  14. It is amazing the writing skills people are displaying on this blog site. What is truly amazing is no person has said, what needs to be said for the hwy 304 system. It needs to be totally shut down and restarted with a round table of minds that implements a strategy for boat travel. Key essential items are left in place for person’s living on those Islands, emergency services, food, ect.. Then a redo is started for the ferry system. As long as it keeps limping along, this “ferry system” will not heal and will in time have to be cut off 100%. That’s not fair to those who have been true islanders for many years. Stay safe! ‘Iceman’ 2024

    1. Iceman,

      The ferry system is already evolving for the better. Kitsap has passenger ferry routes, with local tax funding.

      Same with the King County ferries. Both of those have come in handy during the bridge closure.

      1. The only reason Kitsap tax payers agreed to foot ferries is that WSF couldn’t provide service at a frequency, speed, and price that commuters wanted.

        In the 20 years I’ve lived on Bainbridge Island, the only feedback WSF has solicited is whether their annual 2.5% rate increase is acceptable.

        It never seemed to matter to WSF Managment than ridership dropped along with fare increase. It never seems to bother them that every ferry in the summer runs late. It never seemed to occur to them that maybe they should charge tourists a lot more on weekends, despite 2-3 hour waits every weekend between May and September in Edmonds, Kingston, and Bainbridge.

        The problems made visible by the pandemic are long standing issues of an agency whose goal is to do this year only what they did last year, without listening to what passengers actually want nor figuring out what they are actually willing to pay.

        For those of us who commute, we want a more frequent service. The foot ferries demonstrated that.

        A for-profit ferry service would be running smaller boats at a higher frequency during rush hour. WSF can’t do that without replacing the giant, incredibly expensive boats it purchased in the 1990s, which are being retrofitted as electric rather to run into the 2040s.

      2. I appreciate your years of effort to get WSF to read its own data.

        I will quibble with the notion on the need for more frequency. If there are twice as many ferry runs, I expect the death rate among aquatic mammals to also double. Has propeller design evolved?

        Part of the trade-off for more frequency may be fewer routes. Obviously, Bremerton and Windsor are somewhat separate (and both high-ridership) markets. Maybe one of the sacrifices is that Kitsap should stick to running its cross-Sound passenger ferries from these two hubs. I realize Bremerton has not gotten a passenger ferry to Seattle, which says something about the politics of who the ferry district is serving. Bremerton is the market most beset by failing to pay off a few neighbors to allow faster passage.

        Kingston opted for a one-seat ride to downtown Seattle over frequency that would have involved depending on Community Transit to provide provide well-timed all-day service between Edmonds Ferry Terminal and the 1 Line. (Edmonds Ferry Terminal, bizarrely, doesn’t even have a direct connection to the 1 Line.) If Kingston wants frequency to Seattle after the 1 Line extends to Lynnwood City Center, it can make the choice for a shorter route with a heckuva lot more frequency, with cooperation from CT. But then, is Kingston becoming enough of an urban center to merit all this service (KT passenger and WSF combined)?

        That cross-Sound passenger ferry to Southworth … How did that happen?

  15. So the Clipper is done for the season due to lack of cross border travel, meanwhile WS Ferries are having trouble maintaining service to the islands.

    The islands are roughly the same distance and in almost in the same route.

    Maybe there is an opportunity for creative thinking either for private service or the state paying to run the clipper for passenger only runs to a few of the islands?

    I bet a high speed passenger only service to and from downtown Seattle would get some takers, even at a the normal Clipper prices…

    1. It would have to be seriously subsidzed, as of course are the WS ferries it would aid.

      The Clipper exists and survives because it goes to downtown Victoria, an international tourist magnet. While Orcas Island is a Washington State tourist magnet, it’s hard to imagine filing the Clipper with walk-on passengers to beautiful (but tiny) Orcas Village. Or even Friday Harbor.

      The State needs to man up and get another keel laid promptly.

      But changing the name of the service won’t solve its budget problems.

    2. Clipper Vacations already has a dedicated San Juan route. It’s suspended because of Covid. When there’s sufficient demand it will start back up which likely won’t be earlier than next spring. It’s a interesting idea leasing the boat as a WSF. This is what King County did with Argosy before they were able to buy their own boat(s) for the W Seattle foot ferry. More van service and less cars would be a good thing for the Islands.

  16. “WSF built new Olympic Class ferries to replace some of the fleet’s oldest vessels. Each new ferry carries 144 vehicles. The Olympic Class design is based on the Issaquah class, the most versatile vessel in our fleet.” * These ferries, sized for the medium large routes, can also cover for the highest capacity as well as low capacity, with 1500 foot passengers. Their standard speed and top speed are the same. They cannot make up for lost time by going faster. There is some slack in the schedule, usually spent at one of docks.

    *WA DOT Ferry site

    1. The “slack time” is a joke. If you sign up for ferry alerts on the Bainbridge route, you’ll get a message every day from May to September about the ferries running late.

      Not just on weekends. Not just a few days per week. Every single day for months.

      It’s as if WSF planners live on another planet. They have years of actual sailing times to analyze when creating the summer schedule but year after year ignore it all and think the “slack time” will make up for late sailings.

      If the timeline planners are that inept, why would the capital planners be more competent. Perhaps they are the same staffers???

  17. More freebies for the undeserved, while the state and it’s infrastructures go into the toilet. This makes paying taxes sad and defeating. Everything now equates to less service at more cost. 50 years in the making, welcome to the global village. I remember when the untouchable were only in India!

    1. Did you mean “undeserving” or “underserved”? “Undeserved” is not a word.

      If the first, why do you think the residents of Kitsap County and South Whidbey are “undeserving”? If the second, whst level of service would be appropriate?

  18. Several points
    While our Canadian cousins arguably share a similar labor environment, I could only find two crew-related BC Ferries cancellations for the entire summer. In October Washington Ferries was cancelling over 200 a day…Yikes!
    BC Ferries Awarded a contract in 2019 for four hybrid-electric vessels, which are expected to enter service in 2022. By contrast Gov. Inslee shut down 144-car ferry building in 2018. There still isn’t a contract and delivery of the first one isn’t until 2025 or later, then one every year to year and half.
    Our 144-car Olympics cost $143M each. By contrast BC Ferries 145-car Salish class ferries cost $67M each and arguably they’re a more sop. By contrast
    they’re a more sophisticate design with far more amenities.

    1. WA still has a requirement that the ferries be built in State. I think there’s really only one shipyard left that is remotely capable of building them so they can charge whatever the State is will/able to cough up. That’s one advantage Kitsap transit has; they were able to take advantage of the used market and for smaller boats there are more shipyards that are capable so the bidding process for new boats is more competitive.

  19. Totally agree. When the legislature mandated built in Washington in 1993 we had the shipyards. Now what we have is a monopoly with high costs and limited delivery capacity. The legislature subsequently passed a rule that if the bid exceeded the engineering estimate by more than 5% the bid could go out of state. That however doesn’t apply to existing contracts. Our new hybrids were under the extension of the existing contract so not under that rule

  20. First a friendly correction: There have been new ferries added in the last 10 years. I ride two of them all the time on the Muk/Clinton run (I live in and own a retail shop in Langley and make a weekly wholesale trip to Georgetown)…The Tokitae and the Suquamish. I believe there was a 3rd of that new class also added onto the San Juan run.

    The ferries present an opportunity for getting more people outside of Seattle to take transit. They’re basically tolled, multi-modal “highways”. If there were better transit connections at all ferry terminals, A LOT more ferry riders, not just commuters, would take transit. Take Mukilteo. There are 60,000 people on Whidbey Island, and many of us live close to adequate transit service timed to meet the ferry in Clinton. Transit on the Mukilteo side is a disaster, with only commuter service at the wee hours. Most of the day you only get the CT 113.
    That bus takes an hour to get from the ferry to Lynnwood TC. Let’s focus on improving transit connections to the ferries, and maybe more foot ferries in the future, since we’re never going to bridge most of these spans, and there are communities, some of them with pre-car skeletons, outside of Seattle that deserve good transit. More transit constituency outside of Seattle might even improve the state legislature’s opinion of funding transit service.

  21. Life raft requirements are set by the USCG. Up until a few years ago routes with two boats could count on the second boat to take off passengers in an emergency. This is except for Sidney which had to comply with international requirements SOLAS for full capacity in rafts. The USCG made the full rafting requirement for all boats a few years ago and I think by now all ferries are upgraded. This may not mean more rafts rather it can be larger rafts. Crewing can be driven by accident scenarios. More rafts can require more crew e.g. 2 per raft. Ferries can have “graduated crewing” where by limiting passengers and deck access they can reduce crew size. Which has been done.
    As for fares, when the legislature passes a budget they intentionally fund the gap between revenue and costs that requires a certain amount to be raised by fares. The Transportation Commission then sets fares to meet that. It’s done thru a public process. This usually results in a 2 1/2% per year increase. While having demand management pricing has been discussed it hasn’t been done. Reasons include: different routes having great differences in available transit, traffic on different routes have different needs for having vehicles, and increasing prices at commuter times puts a burden on people who can’t change their work hours and who are already spending a lot on fares e.g. on my route it comes out at $5-6000 so % fare increases are a lot more money that for walk-ons. Finally increasing fare costs have been squeezing lower income riders off the boats. In the periodic surveys the gap between rider median income and community median income has grown.
    An elegant way to shift demand is by reservations where riders shift their travel to where there’s available capacity

    1. Thanks for the update on the raft requirements.

      The small board that sets fares, independent of WSF, decided to allow an ORCA LIFT fare, if and when the state pays for it.

  22. Didn’t see anyone mention it but for the Bainbridge run the Jumbo Mk 2 is used.

    The Mk2 carriers 2,499 passengers. So during the commuter hours / summer weekends and game days the ship will be at capacity.

    The Kitsap fast foot ferries carry 118 passengers.

    So you would need 21 foot ferry sailings in that same 30-40 minute window to replace a single car ferry.

    For such a heavy line it is always cheaper and more energy efficient to build a few large vessels travelling at moderate speed. At which point you might as well load cars on the lower deck. So a car ferry.

    What should be done, and sort of is by Kitsap county. Is add additional foot ferries from more locations to take pressure off the car ferries. Though again their is hard limit to how useful this is as small fast boats are not fun once the sea gets rocky, even less so when the trip takes a considerable amount of time.

    1. The Jumbo Mark II’s have a capacity of 2,500 people. In 20 years living on Bainbridge, I’ve seen the walk-one halted just twice due to capacity.

      Once when the Mariner’s opening ended at 4pm. Once the day of the Seahawks parade.

      The 5:30 ferry to Bainbridge is typically full of cars, but no more than 1,000 passengers. Pre-pandemic it was rare when you sat next to a person vs. sitting next to an empty seat.

  23. In saying simply that fares are set by the Transportation Commission using a “public process” that was an overly vague description on my part. Fare setting starts with Washington State Ferries which develops a proposal of fares and fare policies (which include policies regarding ORCA). These must meet the revenue target set in the budget by the legislature. By law Ferries meets representatives from all ferry served communities. These meetings also include freight, transit and cycling representatives. They meet 3-4 times over several months. Ferries present their proposal for fare and fare policy changes to the Commission. If the ferry community reps disagree they also present their views. Fare schedules are put out as a Washington Administrative Code (WAC) document. The commission follows a time table of review, public notice, comment and public hearing that’s required for WACs. This process normally occurs every two years in alignment with the two year state budget cycle. The WAC may include several fare increases within that cycle. Rarely the Commission may put out a WAC in less that two years if there are significant changes. When budget amounts differ with actual, in the off years the Legislature may adjust the money for ferries in a supplemental budget.

    1. I can recall only once in 20 years living on Bainbridge Island when WSF didn’t increase the rates exactly as outlined before the public comment process took place.

      The one time they asked whether to increase car fares at a higher percentage than walk-on fares. We said yes, and they implemented that plan instead of another they proposed.

      Or in short, the WSF feedback system is political theater, with no one at WSF listening or acting upon that feedback.

      1. The bridge toll ovrr the Narrows is no different. Remember Olympia Reps and our DOT saying the toll wpuld never be more than $4. Yeah, who believed that tale even then.

  24. I have lived in washington my whole life. 63 years. I grew up in edmonds. The ferrys are so beautiful. The workers on those boats the finest. Please support them. But I have always thought that a bridge from alkai would be nice.

  25. “When I was young, living at home with my parents, voting age adults always voted for State and community issues, like school’s. Today, people only vote for issues that concern those individuals.”

    I disagree. If anything, I think voting has become more about the choice that makes one feel good emotionally than about furthering one’s direct economic self-interest. Lots of people vote for services they don’t use because they believe it’s important (it would be nearly impossible to pass any transit measure at the ballot box, otherwise). And lots of people vote against services they do use because they believe offering it to be ideologically wrong. The number of lower-income Republicans and upper-income Democrats in this country is huge and growing.

  26. Has anyone mentioned a big corporate backer? Is it feasible to put an attraction on the islands, on the westside destination, that would “increase” demand for ferry travel? This would require expansion and new ferry technology with reliable and consistent service? With telecommuting for jobs, the ridership has and will continue to decline. What is left to sustain ferries will be tourism. It would be ideal to keep travel minimized with less environmental impact, and those that can afford their seclusion in their high cost properties, but I know the ferry system has been crumbling for years. We surely don’t want a ferry disaster to be the wake up call.

  27. Comments
    Ferry worker salaries have an interesting background. After a wildcat waterfront strike 1981 legislation included no-strike provisions and replacing collective bargaining with legislatively set salaries. This was also so they’d be in line with other state workers. Unions however retained bargaining rights for working conditions and benefits. This became a substantial increase of net income especially for more senior positions. Something targeted by King 5 news in their “waste on the water series (King 5 News, November 5th, 2016). Salary bargaining was eventually restored with two provisions: the state Office of Financial Management would determine prevailing maritime wages and, before a salary bill could be passed,, OFM would determine if it was “affordable”. That set up a loop where there would be negotiations, then arbitration; then OFM would declare the settlement “unaffordable” and legislation would be for an “affordable amount”, The unions would accept that with the proviso that the difference would be made up in the next budget in which the cycle would repeat. It did that for many cycles however with Governor Inslee it appears to have abated.

  28. “There are 21 auto/passenger ferries in the current fleet. Nine are over 30 years old and no new ferries have been added in a decade.” This statement is plainly untrue. I was on the maiden revenue sailing of the MV Samish in 2015. About half a dozen Olympic class ferries have entered service in the past decade. While I see the ferry service falling behind in provision of a reliable fleet for the future, you need to fact-check the keystone statement on which the rest of your article hangs.

  29. My wife is from Chimacum. She led the local movement to name the new ferry the Chimacum.

    Obviously she grew up using ferries to get to Seattle and school. We have had a house on Whidbey Island since 1997, and my family had a cabin on Whidbey Island in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

    Without a doubt the ferry system is much better than it was in the “olden days”.

    First, and most important, ferry capacity got larger. The Issaquah class ferry has been an excellent ferry, and as they were passed down the line to smaller runs like Mukilteo they changed ferry service dramatically. I remember as a boy waiting up to four hours to get to Clinton on the ferry.

    Next, the reservation system on small but sometimes crowded runs like Keystone to Port Townsend has made a huge improvement. No longer waiting in a hot car for three hours with kids waiting for a ferry. At first the reservation system was free, so it was abused, but now with a credit card requiring a reservation, and a fee for not showing up, it has changed this route. More runs need to go to a partial reservation system.

    The issue right now is the same for many service industries: the workers have disappeared. Other than wind on the Keystone run (a dramatic and beautiful run I worked to preserve when the WSF system wanted to move the terminal south and pave a waterfront park for parking) most cancellations are due to lack of workers.

    There is also funding. Ferry travel slowed during Covid, but has picked back up, especially since many don’t want to vacation out of the country. IIRC ferries are suppose to recover 65% of their costs from farebox recovery, when Metro only has to recover 20% and ST 40%. I would like to see those numbers closer to one another. Say 50% across the board. That would help the ferry system, and provide more money for all transit and transportation.

    Worker availability should recover, or I hope it does, although Covid has caused a lot of front line workers to reevaluate their work lives. Apparently some call in sick to protest vaccine mandates, but so far those protests have died as the mandate date has come and most have gotten vaccinated. I have had friends who have worked on ferries, and their biggest complaint is the boredom and routine. For them anyway, the overtime pay was good.

    The legislature is not going to build massive bridges across Puget Sound. The WSF is not going to transition from car ferries to passenger ferries because: 1. costs; 2. capacity; and 3. you have to get somewhere once you get to the western side. Not every ferry customer is a white collar worker working in downtown Seattle, and even when the ferry does land and you work in Seattle it can be a hike to your office. West Puget Sound is the antithesis of urbanism, by design. They go into Seattle to work or play, but want to live in a place unlike Seattle, especially today.

    For us we go to the western side of Puget Sound to get away from our city life and to vacation, which means we have SUV’s packed with everything we will need. It is more rural in these areas than Seattle, and the residents much nicer and more laid back.

    I could see retiring on Whidbey Island, at least half the year, and more and more from Seattle are. It is pretty slow during the winter (many have places in Palm Springs too), and if you need a lot of medical care you want to be closer to the hospitals and medical clinics. But there is a lot of space, and it is beautiful, and it is devoid of the things a large urban city has that wear you down emotionally.

  30. Redirecting Hwy304 to Illahee with a bridge to BI, then cancelling the auto ferry from Bremerton. Shifting the load and future electric boat to BI with Kitsap transit (bus) adding a direct route from Bremerton to the BI terminal. BI residents have been complaining about the increased traffic on Hwy 305 for over a decade, so let’s write up the next STP to include the Hwy 304 bridge to south BI across the Port Orchard Sound. This is not a new idea, and it comes up every ten years for the last 40 years. Maybe Inslee (a resident of BI) can constructively assist all residents of Kitsap and the Puget Sound. Kitsap Rapid Transit has been doing a great job with their bus routes and their new passenger ferry routes since I arrived in the area in 1987. Keep up the great work.

    1. DOA. Since Inslee lives on BI he knows that the island is 100% opposed to a bridge to Bremerton. They were opposed back when the the island was unincorporated rural county land. Now its one of the richest suburban towns in the state. The limited access is by design.

  31. Jack – that should have been done instead of the Agate Pass bridge in 1950, obviously decision and construction was earlier. At that time Bainbridge successfully opposed the better solution. Now that highway going north and south is a major barrier to east west movement on the island. Further, Kitsap Peninsula has the room andwould have allowed an actual highway from Ilahee to Poulsbo. I think it is too late for that Ilahee bridge.

  32. Funny thing after reading all this… Portland is pushing to create some ferry services to reduce road congestion, especially on the I-5 bridge. The hilarity of it all is that they claim it will remove X number (sorry I forget the actual numbers) of cars from the bridge each day. So I did a lil math, and found that the projected number would only be what crosses the bridge in 3 minutes during rush hour. Yeah, thats worth hundreds of millions of dollars…smh…

  33. The privately owned Puget Sound Navigation Company (Blackball Line) was NOT failing. It was forced out of business in 1951 by politicians who wanted to use it as a “black hole” to suck money into the state’s General Fund.

    At the beginning of WWII PSN’s busiest route quickly became the one from Seattle to Bremerton and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. PSN’s President, Alexander Peabody assigned three of his biggest, fastest ships to the route, and they ran full bore with heavy loads, 24 hours a day. Because the company was suddenly making SO much money, Peabody went to the State Utilities Commission, which regulated ferry fares (because PSN was a near monopoly) and voluntarily offered to take a 10% fare CUT to help the war effort. The commission praised the company for their patriotism and immediately approved the lower fares.

    Throughout the war, Blackball ran the boats full tilt, carrying thousands across the sound every day. But because of wartime shortages, boat maintenance suffered. Only the most critical parts were made available in order to keep the ferries running, but normal work was set aside until after the war, when parts again became available.

    But when the war ended, just like when Cocus’s pandemic ended, there was a huge demand for consumer goods that were suddenly available after the war. Low supplies and high demand drove prices up, with inflation hitting as high as 30%.

    Peabody’s crews all demanded immediate raises to keep up with inflation, without which they threatened to strike. And parts suppliers all raised their prices too. Even worse, without wartime repairs, traffic to the Naval Shipyard quickly dropped back to pre-war levels, reducing the fleet’s income dramatically!

    Peabody went back to the Utilities Commission and asked for his 10% reduction back, bringing ferry fares back to prewar levels. And to combat inflation, give his crews a cost of living increase, and pay to get his boats restored to pre-war conditions, he asked for an additional 10% fare hike, which in retrospect was very minor compared to 30% inflation levels.

    But meanwhile the membership of the Utilities Commission had been replaced by the Governor, and the new commissioners thought a whopping 20% fare increase was utterly unreasonable. So in a final decision, they only granted a 10% increase, half of what Peabody needed to keep his fleet running, and basically the same fares had been charged before the war and postwar spiraling inflation.

    Peabody reviewed his accounting and realized that to try to keep the boats running with the higher postwar cost of fuel and giving his crews a raise to prevent them striking, his company would immediately begin to lose money. So he appealed to the commission, but they again refused his needed fare increase.

    So, threatened with bankruptcy, Peabody announced the State could not force a private business to continue operating at a loss, and with plenty of public notice, he simply shut Puget Sound Navigation down, tying his boats in their docks, and sending all but their watchmen home.

    The lockdown lasted long enough to throw cross-sound commuting into disarray. But finally Kitsap County, which was hardest hit by the stoppage agreed to charter PSN boats at the higher rate, and cross-sound traffic began moving again.

    But the Governor was outraged that Peabody had “blackmailed the state for ransom,” and immediately introduced legislation to take over PSN’s ferry routes through the right of eminent domain. Peabody fought the move tooth and nail, but ultimately the legislation passed in Olympia, and Peabody was forced to sell most of his fleet and terminals for what was basically at, or even below, scrap value.

    To his dying day, Alexander Peabody swore the State of Washington had stolen his business from him.

    On June 1, 1951, every ferry paused mid-route, the Blackball House Flag was lowered, and a new Washington State Ferries flag was raised in its place. On June 2nd, the Utilities Commission raised ferry fares by 15%, 5% more than even Peabody had asked for. And Washington State Ferries had LOST money every single day since.

    But of course “losing” money is relative. Every dime that’s paid in ferry tolls and fares goes directly into the Washington State General Fund. Every penny it costs to run the ferries comes out of the Department of Transportation’s budget, and that’s set by the legislature two years in advance. It makes no difference if traffic gets so heavy another boat needs to be added to the run. If that sailing wasn’t budgeted for in the biennial budget, it can’t happen without the DOT ferry fund going over budget, even if the boat is run completely full of autos and passengers. . In other words, to provide more needed service, make emergency boat repairs, or fix even an older boat like the Hyak to fill in in an emergency, the system LOSES money.

    So it doesn’t happen.

    1. Interesting narrative. Some links to washingtonhistory.org or other source would be appreciated. My question is how did Blackball remain in business and retain the Port Angeles to Victoria route?

  34. More Washington State politicians have won and lost office on the back of “transportation issues” than any other subject in our state’s history. The problem is not the Governor. It is entirely in the dynamics of the legislature, which sets the biennial budgets. For all too long the ferry system has been asked to do more each year with less resources to do it.

    As the joke goes, “we can now do anything with almost nothing!” But it isn’t a joke! The cost of doing everything keeps going up, but the legislature, afraid of many needs to spend citizens’ money, barely appropriates enough to counteract basic inflation, let alone upgrades and acquisitions to modernize the fleet, terminals and infrastructure. Lately some improvements have come, but only slowly and grudgingly.

    It’s been said that once in office, bureaucrats and politicians are only reactive by nature. It’s much safer for their careers to fight fires rather than to prevent them. Authorizing a hugely expensive fire suppression system would be a huge waste of taxpayer money if the building never caught on fire. That could make that politician a goat to his thrifty constituents. But agreeing to spend whatever it takes to fight a fire in an emergency makes that politician a hero. And most anybody would rather be be a hero than a goat.

    Washington State Ferries are the lifeblood of people on the west side of the sound. But they mean little to the millions of Washingtonians who never use them. I’ve often been asked by Eastern Washington residents, “Why don’t you just drive around? It doesn’t look that far.” While they look so close on the map, they just can’t grasp that from Bainbridge Island, Seattle by road is over 120 miles and often 2-1/2+ hours away. And with Eastern Washington lawmakers jealously fighting for their own slice of the budget pie with representatives of the more densely populated I-5 corridor, neither of them pay much attention to those few West-Sound people who are often treated as an afterthought.

    1. The only reason it might seem that the legislature ignores the ferries, (or any non-automotive transportation), is that you can let the roads turn to crap, since they don’t really ‘stop running’ (for the most part (excepting elevated portions)).

      The Master Plan for I-405 was finished by 2002. It had been decided what they wanted done.
      The legislature didn’t do squat to fund it (i.e. raise taxes) until 2014 (-2016).

      Don’t feel picked on.

    2. Washington State Ferries are the lifeblood of people on the west side of the sound.

      Only the people that live there and want subsidized sprawl that is one of the worst case scenarios if you want to get serious about climate change. There’s plenty of employment at PSNS and Bangor and an entire economy that would do just fine (maybe better) without commuters driving up housing costs and building out suburban/rural tracts that are totally auto dependent.

      That’s why I think it’s incumbent on Kitsap to fund it’s own ferry system which the cost reality means passenger only boats. Still a planet killer but not nearly as bad as WSF moving cars. Best case is WSF starts charging the real cost of transporting automobiles and shifts to full passenger capacity.

  35. The master plan for Washington State Ferries was finished in 1982. It was finally partially funded in 2000 or so. But it’s now 40 years later, and upgrading the ferries to serve the needs of 1982 is just a bit too little, too late.

    Again, the DOT and the legislature need to be funding what ferry users will need tomorrow and in the decades to come, not struggling to provide what they needed yesterday or decades ago.

    1. But they’d have to admit that taxes needed to be raised.

      When Tim Eyman took over the legislature, that wasn’t going to happen.

      1. Wait, when did the Democrats lose power in Olympia? I wouldn’t blame it on Eyman, it’s Trump’s fault.

      2. Anybody paying a $30 car tab… nope, didn’t think so. The Democrats are in control, Eyman is broke and broken by the AG that works for the establishment Democrat strangle hold. Get over the deflecting blame when it’s your party that has absolute control of both the legislature and the Governors office… or just blame it on Trump as that seems to be the most used talking point to deflect failure of policy the Democrats control.

    2. upgrading the ferries to serve the needs of 1982 is just a bit too little, too late.

      Not a need, a want. The entire premise of driving demand by offering cheap (heavily subsidized) ferry service has created sprawl on steroids. What needs to happen is weaning people from this auto dependant paradigm.

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