WSF’s aging fleet will see new vessels, thanks to recently approved funding (Kent Phelan Photo).

WSF’s aging fleet will see new vessels, thanks to recently approved funding (Kent Phelan Photo).

Legislature approves funding for new ferries

Triangle Route study was also funded.

The Washington State Legislature passed a $9.8 billion two-year transportation budget on April 28 that includes funding for new ferries, the electric conversion of another and an efficiency study on the Triangle Route conducted by a Washington transportation research agency, among other projects.

The budget allocated $99 million toward the building of a new 144-car hybrid electric vessel in the 2019-21 biennium and $89 million more in the following two years. An additional $35 million was allocated for the electric hybrid conversion of one of Washington State Ferries’ (WSF) Jumbo Mark II vessels. On a smaller scale, legislators provided $250,000 for the Triangle Route study to be conducted by the Washington State Transportation Center (TRAC). They also allocated $160,000 for a vessel noise reduction study aimed at helping protect the endangered southern resident orcas.

WSF’s long-range plan, completed last year, called for building 16 ferries over the next 20 years to replace some of the vessels on WSF’s aging fleet. The allocation of the funding in this legislative session was particularly important, as it enabled WSF to renew its contract with the shipbuilder, Vigor, with the goal of having a new boat in place by 2022. If the funding had not been approved in this legislative session, the current contract would have expired this summer, delaying the delivery of new vessels until 2027 or 2029. Such a delay would have increased the cost of the ferries because of inflation and because state law would have required WSF to begin the design, approval and bidding process again.

Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents Vashon and introduced the bill for ferry funding, said he and Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, worked diligently to make sure funding for new vessels was part of the transportation budget.

“I can’t even describe how hard that was and how important it was to get funding for the new ferries,” Nguyen said in a phone call last week, noting the potential there had been for delays and higher costs. “This is really important for islanders because if one of the boats is down on one of the routes, one of our boats is taken.”

He called the process of securing the funding “tenuous at best” because many legislators are not interested in funding new vessels.

“Not everyone appreciates the gravity of ferry funding,” he said. “Imagine trying to convince people who do not care about ferries that this is important, and by the way it is going to cost $188 million.”

Nguyen noted that additional funding for ferries is coming from ferry fare surcharges and a modest increase in state vehicle and title registration fees.

He credited Sen. Randall with making his ferry funding bill better by advocating for ferry riders. She proposed amendments that cap the amount for new vessels that can come from fares and restrict fare increases to no more than 10% for any route.

Additionally, the funds to convert one of the ferries from diesel to an electric hybrid are intended to come from Volkswagen’s settlement with Washington State, WSF’s Ian Sterling said. Those funds must go to diesel emission reduction.

Nguyen reflected on the transportation funding process as a whole, saying that only a small number of districts have ferries and that it is important for people from those districts to elect legislators who will fight for ferries.

“If Emily (Randall) and I would not have said something, I do not think we would have gotten money for ferries,” he said. “I think it is really important that you talk to your legislators and support your legislators who are going to advocate for things like ferry funding.”

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon was instrumental in securing $250,000 in funding for an efficiency and cost-saving study of the Triangle Route that TRAC, located at the University of Washington, will conduct. The study’s goal will be to provide maximum sailings moving the most passengers to all stops in the least travel time. Its scope will include collecting data, running computer models, testing loading procedure improvements and studying the fare collection potential of Good to Go and ORCA. It will also assess the costs and fuel economics of alternative schedules and determine the potential return on investment of infrastructure improvements at the docks, such as elevated walk-on bridges.

Islander Steve Stockett led the effort to bring this study to fruition, working with TRAC officials and legislators behind the scenes and testifying before the House Transportation Committee in January, where he requested $500,000 for the study. While the full amount was not awarded, last week Stockett said he is “very pleased” with the funding that was approved and said that it is enough for TRAC to look at the most critical elements on the Triangle Route. He called this study the first chance in 20 years, and likely the last best chance for the next 20 years, to affect WSF’s trajectory.

Rick Wallace, who worked with Stockett regarding local ferry efforts, including the proposed pendulum schedule, said he believes the study will benefit many stakeholders, from ferry riders to all taxpayers.

“Most importantly, this will give WSF information that it can use to perform its mission of service to ferry communities,” he said.

Last week at TRAC, Director Mark Hallenbeck spoke about the study, expected to begin in July. The most important elements of the study, he said, are for TRAC to supply better data to WSF to help with the optimization of the schedule and to provide better “output” so that WSF can improve its communications with communities about choices and potential trade-offs. Additionally, he said, he would like to find a way to add one or two more boats to the peak schedule.

He cautioned that some choices are political, and they nearly all come down to money — but he stressed the scope of his work is about numbers.

“My role is to give them good tool sets and good data so that decisions can be made in a fair way,” he said, joking that he would hide after doing so. “I guarantee you that some people will be unhappy.”

WSF is hosting a meeting on Vashon May 30; Hallenbeck plans to attend.

The ferry meeting is set for 7 p.m Thursday, May 30, at Vashon High School. Topics will include proposed changes to fares, implementation of the long-range plan and the new schedule.

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