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Letters to Inslee: More passenger-only ferries could be among solutions to Washington ferry woes

caption: Passengers look over Puget Sound while aboard a Washington State ferry.
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Passengers look over Puget Sound while aboard a Washington State ferry.

There could be more passenger-only ferries in Washington state's future. It's among the solutions that state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee have talked about amid ongoing issues with Washington State Ferries.

"Action must be taken to preserve our marine highway system for our residents, businesses, and visitors. Please ensure ferries and ferry communities are a priority in the transportation budget," a recent letter from the Puget Sound Regional Council states.

On Feb. 11, the Council sent the letter titled "Fund our Ferries" to Inslee and officials with the Legislature's transportation committees, calling the situation a "crisis," and urging "robust investments." It's the latest correspondence targeted at Inslee and lawmakers over the condition of Washington's ferries, which are suffering from low staffing and frequent disruptions from the aging fleet.

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San Juan County and the town of Friday Harbor sent a similar letter in November 2023, on behalf of "residents, business owners, and essential service providers," adding their voices to the chorus of regional leaders they say are "begging for solutions." Among the requests of state officials, San Juan County urges them to "support the County in establishing a passenger-only ferry service between the islands."

"We are compelled to collectively bring to your attention the serious consequences of the significant disruptions to Washington State Ferries (WSF) service on the Anacortes / San Juan Islands route," the letter reads. "The negative impacts of unpredictable and unreliable sailings and frequent cancellations caused by vessel and crew shortages, vessel maintenance and failures, and other persistent complications across the ferry system are compounding to critical levels."

In the February letter from the Puget Sound Regional Council (signed by 39 elected officials across King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties), the Council not only asked the state to maintain Kitsap's passenger-only ferry service, but also provide funding to increase passenger-only service between Seattle and Vashon Island. The Council also requested studies around additional passenger-only ferry services and the impact of ferries on local economies.

The PSRC also favors fast-tracking new hybrid ferries to replace the state's aging fleet, and says the state should go on a training and hiring spree to help staff the ferries and make up for anticipated retirements.

Gov. Inslee writes back

The governor's office told KUOW it has requested ferry relief funding from the Legislature, but added that budgeting is among the last items negotiated during the legislative session.

In a December letter responding to San Juan County, Inslee offered some insights into what the state is doing to address its ferry woes. He wrote that he favors adding passenger-only service to San Juan Islands routes. Such passenger-only services have become increasingly popular among commuters in Seattle and Kitsap County amid the ongoing problems with the larger ferry system.

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"We want to institute passenger-only ferry service and believe there is a way to do this," Inslee wrote. "To that end, I have requested funding from the legislature to research and report recommendations on increasing ferry capacity through passenger-only ferries throughout Puget Sound starting with the San Juan Islands. Furthermore, I have requested funds be set aside to implement solutions identified for the Interisland route.

"As you know, almost 20 years ago the state stopped providing passenger-only ferry service. In its place, the legislature authorized counties to create passenger-only ferry districts and financing tools to fund passenger-only ferry service. Kitsap and King County have successfully used that model to develop their passenger-only ferry service. We now have unexpected vessel and crewing challenges that warrant rethinking our passenger-only ferry service. It is time for us to put this option back on the table and I welcome the Council’s voice in that discussion."

Inslee also wrote, "Even before WSF’s current challenges, my budget proposals requested WSF funding at a level meant to avoid its current crewing and vessel issues. I am pleased the legislature has joined me in providing funding for programs to develop new licensed deck and engine room officers (WSF’s largest current constraint) and authorizing the building of five new vessels."

Other items listed in Inslee's letter:

  • Funding has been requested for Western Washington University to study how San Juan County and Friday Harbor has been affected by ferry disruptions.
  • WSF is updating its existing priority medical loading program.
  • Inslee expects the state to hire 30 new mate positions by spring 2024.
  • "WSF is exploring the option of expanding the Interisland program to a 7-day a week, year-round service."

The governor also noted a program that WSF already has in place — a private passenger-only ferry out of Anacortes to transport employees to and from the islands. According to WSF, this program was put in place because of the islands' high cost of living, preventing many employees from living locally. These ferries allow WSF employees to live off-island and commute to island ferry docks.

In his letter to San Juan County, the governor wrote that the state is examining "the feasibility of increased wages for employees of WSF to be competitive given current workforce shortage conditions."

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Gov. Inslee's letter to San Juan County about ferry concerns

A December 2023 letter from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in response to another letter from San Juan County. The county is urging state leaders to fix problems with the state's ferry system.

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