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WA's ferry network is stretched thin, how will it recover?

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If you’ve tried to catch a ferry in Washington state lately, you know the fleet is under stress.

Many vessels are 40 to 50 years old — the MV Tilikum is 63 years old. Just 14 of the agency’s 21 ships are currently sailing, meaning a third of the fleet is out of service for maintenance. Several routes are on reduced service or running smaller boats.

During the busiest times, like this past Thanksgiving weekend, that meant bottlenecks and long waits for passengers. That’s just one of the issues facing the largest ferry fleet in the country – persistent staffing shortages and supply chain issues have unmoored a network people rely on for commutes and to connect with the mainland for necessities like grocery stores and medical care.

“I think I can safely say I've never seen this many vessels out of service,” said Washington State Ferries Deputy Assistant Secretary Nicole McIntosh, who has worked with the agency for three decades.

McIntosh said Washington State Ferries has gone through a long period of underinvestment on vessels that are expected to run for 60 years.

“We have a historical backlog of maintenance and we didn't build ferries for 10 years in the early 2000s,” McIntosh said. “That's catching up with us.”

Five vessels are undergoing planned maintenance, while two additional ferries, the MV Chimacum and MV Walla Walla, undergoing unplanned maintenance. The Chimacum, one of the system's newer boats, had catastrophic engine failure in late October. The Walla Walla, which is a 50-year old Jumbo-class ferry, had a prop failure in September.

The agency expects the MV Walla Walla to be back in service by Christmas.

Washington State Ferries will receive a $4.8 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration to refurbish the agency’s Issaquah-class ferries, which are around 50 years old. That money will go towards interior upgrades. The grant is intended to extend the life of existing ferries.

“The details still need to be worked out,” McIntosh said, “but it would be our goal not to pull a boat out of service to do more cosmetic work. Our vessels need a lot of preservation and maintenance in the engine spaces and the exterior. So the goal would be to combine that work with the already needed preservation work.”

The ferry system also anticipates that new boats will be built in 2028. The state Legislature has made it easier for the system to build boats outside the state.

The state’s relationship with the only viable local boatbuilder, Vigor, fell apart a few years ago. Vigor was purchased by the private equity firm the Carlyle Group in 2019 and the price tag for new vessels nearly doubled soon after.

“We've had several shipyards across the country already showing interest,” McIntosh said. “We're encouraged that we can roll out not only one vessel in 2028 but possibly even two.”

Unlike in British Columbia, Federal restrictions prevent the ferry system from contracting with companies outside the U.S. to build vessels.

In the meantime, the agency is looking at 2024 and how to communicate with passengers about service reductions.

“We're undergoing contingency planning right now,” McIntosh said, “and that will be out by the end of this year. That's really going to lay out where we are and what we need to do to increase reliability and then do some trial restorations on our other routes.”

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