Ferry crisis sparks PSRC letter, hits governor’s race

Teresa Mosqueda is among 38 elected officials calling on lawmakers to set aside money for federal ferry grant programs.

King County councilmember Teresa Mosqueda is among 38 elected officials urgently calling on Congressional lawmakers to set aside money for federal ferry grant programs.

Local leaders from across Puget Sound signed the letter, which was delivered by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) to the leaders of the U.S. House and Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development subcommittees.

“The Washington State Ferry system is in crisis,” the letter begins.

The letter-signers express thanks for the more than $140 million in federal grants that the state has received over the last two fiscal years, and the additional ferry program investments made for fiscal year 2024. But more is needed, the letter says, as full system service is still a long way away.

The letter outlines three programs as priorities for funding in the fiscal year 2025 budget: the Passenger Ferry Grant Program, the Ferry Service for Rural Communities Program and the Electric or Low-Emitting Ferry Pilot Program.

In the meantime, the state’s ferry crisis is brewing in the race for state governor, with four major candidates signaling openness to buying new diesel ferries — at least as a temporary stop-gap to electrifying WSF’s fleet.

Bob Ferguson (D) says two requests for proposal (RFP) for two new ferries should be submitted as soon as possible, even if that means they use diesel engines. Either way, he’s also called for an additional RFP for three hybrid-electric boats. He also proposed elevating the head of WSF to report directly to the governor, implementing local ideas for reform and seeking more federal funding. Dave Reichert (R) promised to fast-track contracts for five new diesel ferries to enter service before 2028, according to in-depth reporting by the Kitsap Sun.

According to the Seattle Times, Sen. Mark Mullet (D) has criticized Gov. Inslee’s policy preventing the construction of diesel vehicles, and Semi Bird (R) says he’s ready to order six diesel boats. The Seattle Times Editorial Board, in April, also called for ordering two new diesel ferries.

Those calls for adding new diesel ferries — either as a band-aid or a long term solution — echo a failed effort in the legislature early this year (HB 2498) led by Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, that would have declared a state of emergency to authorize buying at least two non-hybrid ferries as soon as possible.

Each approach is an attempt to grapple with a crisis that has been brewing nearly 25 years — and one the current governor says is misguided.

Gov. Inslee and the WSF, who have charted a plan for a fully-electrified fleet by 2050, totally rejected the idea of new diesel ferries.

According to the Seattle Times, Inslee at an April news conference called diesel a “dirty, nasty old technology” and said switching to diesel now would delay and restart the bidding and design process, ultimately contributing to a longer wait for an inferior product. New WSF head Steve Nevey said pursuing diesel ferries would set the agency a year back, according to KUOW.

The delays — and systemic problems with the ferry system — go back to at least 1999, when the voter-approved Initiative 695 ultimately led to the state legislature slashing a major source of WSF’s funding.

From 2000 to 2010, no new ferries were built. The state approved construction of five new hybrid-electric ferries in 2018, but difficulty finding builders has stymied the process.

In the meantime, the WSF fleet has dwindled from 24 vessels in 2015 to only 21 now — with 15 currently in operation — and the agency says it needs 26 in total to provide reliable service on every route. The agency expects it will start getting its first new ferries in 2028.