Washington lawmakers vote to shore up ferry service on final day of session - Salish Current
March 7, 2024
Washington lawmakers vote to shore up ferry service on final day of session
Tom Banse

An additional summer ferry stop at Orcas Island is among the cheapest of many planned fixes to Puget Sound ferry services funded by the 2024 Washington Legislature; approaching the Orcas dock on the Yakima on a December 2023. (Salish Current ©)

March 7, 2024
Washington lawmakers vote to shore up ferry service on final day of session
Tom Banse

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Updated March 7, 2023, 3:37 p.m., with final vote tallies and comments.

The bipartisan authors of the Washington state transportation budget might be forgiven for feeling like sailors bailing a leaky boat. They patched together some fixes for the beleaguered state ferry system and sent a revised budget to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk on Thursday (March 7). But the boatload of spending could spring a big new leak depending on the voters’ mood in November.

Lawmakers agreed to bolster hiring and training programs for the short-staffed Washington State Ferries. They also fleshed out the financing plan to fully fund five new hybrid electric 144-car ferries. The sorely needed ferry procurement relies in part on future sales of emission allowances to the state’s largest polluters, which are now subject to a voter referendum.

“We need immediate relief,” said state Rep. Greg Nance (D-Bainbridge Island), who elaborated on his website that he was heartened by the additional funding lawmakers directed to ferries. “Our ferry system is on pace for over 3,000 canceled sailings this year.”

The ferry-dependent San Juan Islands came up short in getting immediate state help to scale up a locally operated water taxi or passenger-only interisland ferry. (Read more: “Is passenger-ferry service for the islands possible? Salish Current, Feb. 7, 2024.) But the 2024 state transportation budget included some consolation prizes including a novel reimbursement fund for passengers stranded overnight, ongoing support for a crew shuttle and an additional stop in the summer schedule at Orcas Island.

Skagit County scored a state bailout to put its plans back on course to replace the aging Guemes Island ferry with a larger, all-electric vessel. Just over a month ago, the county commission rejected the bids to construct the new battery-powered ferry after all the bids exceeded the project budget. The county quickly submitted a request to the Legislature for an additional $12 million. They got $10 million, but with a major caveat. The extra cash for the county-operated ferry goes away if the cap-and-trade repeal, Initiative 2117, passes in November. (Read more: “Legislators throw a life ring to Washington’s ‘other’ ferries,” Salish Current, Feb. 21, 2024.)

“The securing of $10 million is great news!” wrote Guemes Island residents Allen Bush and Becca Fong, members of the island’s ferry advisory committee. “We need a new ferry to maintain a sustainable way of life for the community of Guemes.”

Bush and Fong acknowledged that the celebration is tempered by “knowing that the funding for our lifeline hangs in the balance of the vote in November” on I-2117.

“There really isn’t a plan B,” Bush said in an interview Thursday.

“I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed for what happens in November,” said Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki in an interview.

Janicki said the county can’t put the new Guemes Island ferry and related terminal upgrades out to bid until the election outcome is known. She said because of that delay, the county is at risk of losing other grant funding for the project unless it can win extensions

Long list of potential I-2117 impacts

Ferry spending is a prominent, but by no means the only item held in abeyance because of the cap-and-trade ballot measure. The 2024 budgets approved in Olympia this week list page after page of proposed purchases and construction for which the money cannot be spent until after the November election. Electric school buses, new bike paths, wildfire risk reduction and transit improvements are some other categories of projects made contingent on voter rejection of I-2117. 

Lawmakers can merely guess at this early stage what verdict voters will render on the citizen initiative in November. A conservative group called Let’s Go Washington collected more than 400,000 initiative petition signatures to axe the cap-and-trade program. Critics of the climate policy (officially known as the Climate Commitment Act of 2021) blame it for sharply increasing gas prices over the past year as well as contributing to utility rate hikes.

Democratic and Republican legislators said they have discussed budget contingency plans in case the lucrative revenue stream from carbon pollution allowances dries up. On Thursday, Republicans again suggested one way to stretch the remaining dollars would be to scrap battery-electric ferry propulsion in favor of traditional diesel engine power for at least the first couple new state ferries.

What’s in it for ferries… for now

This winter, transportation budget writers could patch holes with $324 million more than anticipated from cap-and-trade pollution permit auctions. The state ferry system alone sucked up nearly $200 million of that windfall for vessel construction and terminal improvements. Mechanical breakdowns in the aging fleet are one of the reasons for the unreliable service currently. In a newly published report, WSF determined that only 8 of its 21 ferries were in “a state of good repair” as of last year.

Separately, lawmakers heaped millions more on top of the tens of millions budgeted in 2023 to remedy the shortage of qualified ferry workers, one of the other underlying reasons for reduced service and cancellations. Specific budget provisos delivered to the governor include hiring additional dispatch staff and subsidizing bigger crew sizes so that last-minute deckhand and engine room absences are less likely to force cancellation of sailings.

“We have listened carefully to our ferry communities,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chair Marko Liias (D-Edmonds) in his floor speech urging final passage. “We have incorporated the feedback we heard from everyday Washingtonians to make our ferry system better.”

“Does this budget do everything? No, it doesn’t. But it does a lot of good things,” added state Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), the ranking Republican on the committee.

WSF tentatively plans to go out to bid this spring for the new 144-car hybrid electric ferries. Lawmakers plan to pay for one to two of the new car ferries with revenue from Washington’s cap-and-trade pollution permit auctions and the others from the regular budget. A best-case scenario has the first of the new state ferries entering service on Puget Sound in early 2028.

The finalized transportation budget received unanimous bipartisan support on Thursday. The spending plan passed the state Senate 47-0 and then cleared the House a few hours later 97-0.

Whoa! Reimbursement possible for some riders left stranded

An unheralded surprise in the revised operating budget of the nation’s largest ferry system is a modest new program to offer reimbursement to walk-on passengers left stranded when the last sailing of the day gets canceled. Lawmakers allocated $100,000 to WSF to reimburse foot travelers for a ride to another terminal or for a hotel night. (Read more: “WTF? WSF meets community’s ire after Memorial Day weekend debacle in San Juans,” June 2, 2023, Salish Current, June 2, 2023)

Unforeseen overnight strandings away from home have been among the biggest headaches in the San Juan Islands and for Vashon Island residents. Island residents teamed up to press the governor and Legislature for supplementary passenger-only ferry service to backstop their reduced or unreliable car ferries. (Read more: “Strangled by ferry crisis, islanders demand action,” Salish Current, Nov. 20, 2023.)

The upshot is that the Legislature allocated $3.2 million in one-time funding to King County to subsidize additional weekday midday passenger-only ferry service to Vashon Island. That leverages the existing vessels and crews of the King County Water Taxi.

San Juan County residents were left waiting at the ferry dock, figuratively speaking, because lawmakers could only scrape together $500,000 for a Puget Sound-wide study of potential new state-supported passenger-only routes. The list of possible routes includes interisland service in the San Juan Islands as well as a seasonal Bellingham-Friday Harbor run and six other urban routes previously put forward by the Puget Sound Regional Council in 2020. The consultant’s deadline to deliver a final report back to the Legislature is June 2025, which is long after the next legislative session’s scheduled adjournment.

Also of interest to the San Juans is the inclusion of $330,000 to continue a privately operated ferry crew shuttle for another year. The shuttle started up last year to address crew shortages and improve the reliability of the interisland service. A charter boat transfers regular crew members and relief workers from the mainland where the cost of living is cheaper to their vessel assignments, usually in Friday Harbor.

Washington State Department of Transportation and legislative budget documents provide limited explanatory detail about the funding of an additional summer stop at Orcas Island. The low-cost schedule change entails extending a 6:45 p.m. Anacortes-Lopez Island run that already was penciled into the summer schedule to make an additional stop at Orcas. The DOT said it anticipated that its ferry would have sufficient spare capacity so that Lopez Island would still get the service it needs, while providing additional peak season rides for Orcas Island customers. 

Finally, the legislature created a WSF 75 work group, largely at the behest of first-year Democrat Nance. The work group is charged with the difficult task of identifying new revenue sources to keep WSF afloat as it approaches its 75th anniversary. A final report is due by the diamond anniversary date in June 2026.

“We need to take an honest look at how we got to this place,” said Nance in a speech to his fellow House members. “The purpose of this legislation is to plant the right seeds, calculate the real costs and then find the dedicated funding to move forward.” 

— Reported by Tom Banse

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