COMMENTARY: Time for Some Serious Squawking About Ferry Service

Are WSDOT, legislators and the governor really doing all they can regarding ferry service?

I have to believe those in charge of personnel are doing their best to hire and train new employees as retirements and COVID-19 (and maybe a sickout here or there) cause crew shortages that derail sailings all too frequently.

It might be nice if some statistics were shared with the public. What I don’t believe is that our governor, legislators and Washington State Department of Transportation management are doing all they can, so it’s past time to squawk loudly as a new legislative session gets underway in Olympia.

There are 21 ferries in service. The six Issaquah Class boats (second to largest) were built 1979-1982, with four rebuilt 1989-1993 and one in 2005. The Sealth, 40 years old this coming year, has never been rebuilt.

On the morning of Dec. 27, it was out of service for mechanical repairs to the steering system. The evening before the Pt. Defiance route was out of service due to issues with the dock hoist motor. It seems at least a weekly occurrence that something in the system goes awry, and only one new ferry (144-car) is under construction, due to launch in 2024.

We need much greater advocacy on the part of senators and representatives. I don’t want to hear again that those without ferries in their districts don’t care — we’re talking about a state transportation system, a marine highway. Funding should be withheld for their roads, bridges and tunnels if they play that game. Can Gov. Inslee snag any of that infrastructure funding the Biden Administration did manage to pass?

Then there is the issue of operations cost to ferry users. Of course, costs go up, and of course, ridership was down in 2020 because of COVID-19. Instead of helping riders as the Metro bus system did, the ferry folks continued to jack up prices (heftily) twice a year. As both commuters working from home, and less frequent users, rode ferries less often, a 10-trip ticket became less cost-effective and a single ticket purchase created another form of price hike. Affordability took another downward turn, and it was noted as one factor in the closing of VCC. Lower-wage workers simply can’t afford to use the system.

Of nine U.S. ferry systems, only two appear comparable: Washington State and Staten Island, both with a ridership of 24-25,000 in 2017. That year our farebox recovery ratio was 78% while Staten Island’s was 24%, and subsidies $2.21 and $5.46 respectively. It looks to me as if we are asked to shoulder too large a percent of operational costs.

The state needs to do better. We have been silent too long; our lifeline is on the line.

Ellen Kritzman has been an island resident for more than 48 years and has been deeply involved in many community efforts and initiatives.