Legislature grants Vashon midday water taxi service, new ferry funding

With new money from the state now secured, King County plans to add four round trips each weekday to its water taxi service between Vashon and downtown Seattle.

The new midday sailings should start July 1, King County Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer said Monday. The tentative schedule calls for new trips to leave Vashon at 9:25 a.m., noon, 1:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m; and for sailings to depart Seattle at 8:50 a.m., 11:25 a.m., 12:45 p.m. and 3 p.m. The water taxi now runs only during morning and afternoon commute hours.

Metro revealed its plans days after the state Legislature appropriated $3.17 million to fund the expanded service. The added trips are intended to provide some relief for the inconvenience and hardships islanders have endured as Washington State Ferries’ car-ferry service between Vashon and Fauntleroy has become more infrequent and less reliable in recent years.

Increased water taxi service was a priority of Islanders for Ferry Action (IFA), an advocacy group convened last fall by the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce to address ferry problems.

“We are very, very excited,” said Amy Drayer, the Chamber’s executive director. “Expanding water taxi service was almost universal in terms of what people wanted.”

The water taxi money is included in a supplemental transportation budget the Legislature approved last week for the remainder of the 2023-2025 budget cycle. The legislation, which at press time still was awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature, also includes funding for another IFA priority: $169,000 for WSF to hire another “service planner,” a job category whose duties include route scheduling.

The hire may allow WSF to review, and perhaps redo, the two-boat schedule for its Vashon-Fauntleroy-Southworth “Triangle” route.” WSF officials have admitted that the unpopular schedule “doesn’t work,” but say the agency lacks staff to update it.

The supplemental budget appropriates money for other programs and projects that could improve WSF service to Vashon relatively soon.

Among the largest: $10 million for WSF to hire 80 new deck and engine-room crew system-wide. That’s intended to reduce the number of trip cancellations when boats lack enough crew to meet Coast Guard requirements.

“The Legislature has taken important first steps toward relieving the ferry crisis, something that many of us would not have imagined possible even a few months ago,” IFA said in a statement Friday. “… Vashon residents have come away with some critical first wins.”

Water taxi win

The push to appropriate money to expand water taxi service was spearheaded in the Legislature by first-term state Rep. Emily Alvarado of West Seattle, whose district includes Vashon.

“Emily Alvarado has really stepped up for our community,” said Wendy Aman, an IFA leader and member of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee. “She said back in September that this was a priority for her.”

Alvarado said in an interview that the $3.17 million budget request was developed in consultation with King County Metro. Additional midday weekday service was selected over other options because Metro could begin providing it more quickly, she said, and because islanders have indicated it’s a priority for getting to and from work, medical appointments and other engagements on the mainland.

The water taxi now has six roundtrip weekday sailings between Vashon and Seattle – three during the morning commute, three during the afternoon peak. There are no sailings between 8:15 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., and no sailings on weekends or holidays.

Funding for the new weekday midday sailings will expire when the state’s two-year budget cycle ends on June 30, 2025. It’s highly unlikely WSF will be providing more service to Vashon by then; a permanent increase from two boats to three on the Triangle route likely won’t happen until at least 2028, when the agency begins getting new vessels.

WSF has pledged to add more boats to its reduced routes when possible, and said that the Triangle route would be first-in-line for such spontaneous, temporary or seasonal boosts.

Alvarado said she’ll work to extend state funding for the added water taxi trips beyond 2025: “It’s one part of a broader strategy to bring more reliable service to Vashon,” she said.

She said she’ll welcome feedback from islanders on how the new service is working, and what gaps remain.

Aman and Drayer said continued funding beyond 2025 will depend in part on how much islanders utilize the new sailings. “Demonstrating ridership is going to be a big piece of this,” Drayer said.

King County Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who also lobbied for the money for increased water taxi service, agreed: “If we can continue to show the value, that makes it easier to ask (to extend funding),” she said.

Mosqueda, whose council district includes Vashon, said she’s begun conversations with Metro about establishing shuttle bus service between the water taxi’s Vashon terminal and Vashon Town. It would be similar to shuttle service that already connects West Seattle Junction with West Seattle’s water taxi terminal.

In the meantime, King County Metro has announced expanded midday service on its weekday 118 and 119 bus routes, saying the new schedule is timed to match current WSF schedules as well as the new water taxi runs. (See bus service story, page 1.)

Fixing ferries

Washington State Ferries service to Vashon and other communities it serves has deteriorated badly in recent years as two long-simmering challenges have come to a boil.

The agency’s aging, undersized fleet has become increasingly unreliable. And retirements and resignations have left WSF short-staffed, sometimes without enough crew to meet Coast Guard minimums to sail.

The result: Fewer scheduled sailings, more delays, more cancellations.

Together, the problems prompted WSF to acknowledge in January that a return to the three-boat schedule Vashon enjoyed before COVID-19 would have to wait until new boats begin coming online at least four years from now.

That focused attention on fixing the two-boat schedule. It is plagued by chronic delays, and has gaps of up to 2-1/2 hours between weekday sailings from Vashon to Fauntleroy.

“It’s a two-boat schedule that doesn’t work,” John Vezina, WSF’s director of planning, customer and government relations, said at a January meeting with islanders.

Vezina and other WSF officials have said in public meetings that hiring another service planner would allow WSF to review and update the schedule. With money for that hire now in the budget, IFA intends to hold WSF to that commitment, Drayer said.

A WSF spokesman said the agency would have no comment on appropriations in the supplemental budget until Inslee signs it.

The bill also includes:

• $5.1 million — in addition to $11.9 million appropriated in the original, 2023 two-year budget — for several workforce development programs, including hiring more dispatchers.

• $4.9 million — on top of $9 million in the 2023 bill — for overtime and other “special pay categories” for deck, engine room and terminal staff.

• $140,000 for Western Washington University’s Center for Economic and Business Research to conduct a study this year of the ferry system’s economic impact, both statewide and in the communities it directly serves.

• $100,000 to reimburse walk-on passengers for emergency expenses when cancellation of the last sailing of the day leaves them stranded on the dock. Reimbursable expenses would include emergency shelter and transportation to another terminal, according to a budget support document.

The supplemental budget also adjusts, and in some cases increases, funding through mid-2025 for WSF’s long-term construction programs. The most ambitious is a $4 billion effort to transition the entire fleet from diesel to hybrid electric vessels by 2040.

Some of the funding for electrification is in doubt, however: It comes from the state’s 2021 Climate Commitment Act, which requires top polluters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or pay to continue them.

Initiative 2117, on the November ballot, would repeal the act and cut off the money. So the just-passed supplemental transportation budget says newly appropriated funds derived from the climate law can’t be spent until after the election.

For WSF, about $42 million toward boat and terminal electrification is on hold. Much more could be lost in future years if voters approve the initiative.

Not on hold, however, is a $1.5 million appropriation to begin studying whether the Triangle route should be served by its own class of hybrid electric boats rather than vessels designed for other routes.

Eric Pryne is a retired Seattle Times journalist.