WSF calles for better tech, new vessels in long-range plan

WSF updates its long-range plan once every 10 years

Washington State Ferries sent the final version of its long-range plan to the state Legislature last week, prioritizing the addition of new ferries, as more than half of WSF’s fleet is slated to be retired by 2040.

The plan, nearly 150 pages long and with a $14.6 billion price tag, will guide WSF’s investments and service until 2040 and includes four areas of focus: reliable service, customer experience, managing growth, and sustainability and resilience. Over the next 20 years, the plan calls for building 16 ferries; investing in terminal improvements, including at Fauntleroy; and focusing on new technology and strategies to improve service and manage growth. The plan also includes recommendations for greening the ferry fleet, specifically electrifying the vessels, per Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order, and preparing for climate change and seismic events.

“This Long Range Plan provides a blueprint to guide WSF’s investments and meet our customers’ service expectations,” Assistant Secretary Amy Scarton said in a press release last week. “We need to invest immediately in building new ferries, developing our workforce and upgrading technology and terminals to provide reliable, sustainable and resilient ferry service through 2040 and beyond.”

WSF updates its long-range plan once every 10 years and has been working on this plan for more than 18 months, a process that included outreach to all the communities ferries serves. A September open house on Vashon drew about 100 people, though many who attended did so because of their interest in the Triangle Route schedule, which was in the early stages of revision at that time.

WSF’s plan states that its ridership is expected to grow more than 30 percent by 2040, up from 25 million passengers annually to 32 million. Already WSF is straining to meet demand, the report acknowledges, “with an overburdened fleet and aging infrastructure.” Sounding a theme similar to the recently released UW Evans School study, which called for technology improvements at Fauntleroy, the long-range plan stresses the importance of making use of technological advances.

“We must seize on opportunities for technology to play a role in improving the customer experience,” it says.

Within the next two years, WSF calls for building five new vessels — two for maintenance relief and three to replace retiring vessels — as well as converting the first of three vessels to electric-hybrid propulsion. Additionally, during this time frame, a plan would be created to retain and attract workers into the WSF system, initial work for improvements at the Fauntleroy dock would begin and WSF would enhance ticketing and reservations systems, possibly adopting the state’s GoodToGo! tolling system.

Within three to seven years, the plan calls for five more vessels to be built and two more vessels converted to electric-hybrid propulsion. Additional technology improvements, including automated queue detection and electronic signage at the terminals, are suggested to improve fare collection, service and customer information. In the long term, 10 to 20 years, more vessels will be delivered, including two in 2028 and one every year from 2029 through 2037. Several “preservation” projects are slated for Fauntleroy, Vashon, Southworth, Point Defiance and Tahlequah, among other locations.

As part of the plan, each route is examined individually. WSF spokeswoman Hadley Rodero said Ferries made no changes to the recommendations for the Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth route compared to the earlier draft islanders’ commented on in the fall. At that time, she said that several islanders had expressed concern that improvements for the Fauntleroy dock and technology upgrades were not stressed enough in the plan. Last week, she said that WSF will rely on the upcoming Fauntleroy dock project to shape the future of that facility as well as the addition of a second slip at Southworth.

As it was submitted to the Legislature, WSF’s plan for the Triangle Route includes, within three to seven years, the first of three new electric-hybrid propulsion vessels in 2027 and “preservation projects” at the Fauntleroy and Vashon Island terminals in the 2025-2027 biennium; no service enhancements are planned for this time frame. In the long term, the remaining two Issaquah Class vessels will be replaced by electric-hybrid 124-car vessels in 2028 and 2029 and expanded winter hours, initially proposed for 2033, has been moved to 2028.

On the Tahlequah-Point Defiance route, no service improvements are expected within the next seven years, although “preservation projects” at both terminals are expected in the medium and long term. Also, Rodero noted that a newly added Future Opportunities section of the plan discusses several improvements to multiple routes if additional funding/resources are available, including increasing the size of the vessel on the Point Defiance/Tahlequah route from the current 64-car vessel class to a 114-car vessel in 2037.

Members of the Legislature received both this plan and the report from the Evans School within one month of each other. WSF’s Rodero characterized the work entailed in both as parallel efforts that require funding. She noted that Inslee submitted his budget for 2019-21 before WSF’s plan and the UW study were completed, so the budget does not address their respective recommendations. While some of the Evans School suggestions were included in WSF’s long-range plan, Rodero said without designated resources, a time line to implement the recommendations of either is “indeterminable” at this point.

WSF estimated the cost of its plan, both operational and capital expenses, at $14.6 billion over 20 years. Dedicated tax revenue and fare collection would cover $7.7 billion of the costs. WSF and ferry-served communities will be looking to lawmakers to fund the remaining nearly $7 billion.

The plan makes clear that funding from the Legislature is essential for WSF’s recommendations to be carried out — and that the consequences of not funding and implementing the full range of recommendations would be substantial.

“Not only would vessel maintenance suffer, but terminals would also be left vulnerable to the ravages of old age and seismic activity. The public would experience longer queues at terminals and more frequent cancellations, while congestion on roadways would increase,” the report states.