What’s next for Washington State Ferries

by Anna Marlis Burgard


As Anacortes-San Juans ferry patrons sail into fall, they’ll ride the Chelan instead of the Elwha, lose a month of international sailings and head to the polls for a critical ballot vote in November.

The Sounder reached out to Washington State Ferries representatives Ian Sterling and Hadley Rodero to discuss these topics.

The Elwha

A recent U.S. Coast Guard inspection determined that the Elwha, which has experienced severe service outages in the past, was found to need safety repairs to its vehicle deck, in addition to its recent $25 million upper deck steelwork. The boat will remain out of service for the foreseeable future, but the Chelan will serve in its place.

While the repairs to the Elwha, built in 1967, are expensive, and while the Legislature and governor approved new ferry construction, the three-year build time for the new Olympic class green vessel means that paying for the Elwha repairs is a better solution than being without the vessel completely until 2022.

The Chelan has a smaller capacity, but one that will serve well during the offseason. However, it will undergo its annual Coast Guard inspection from Nov. 12-Dec. 8. Since the Elwha and Chelan are the only international vessels in the fleet, there will be no service from Anacortes to British Columbia during that period — and potentially beyond, depending on what the inspection reveals. Travelers can use the Canadian port at Sidney to sail during this time. Other vessels in the fleet can’t be retrofitted to serve international sailings requirements without substantial cost and service losses to other routes.

Washington State Ferries internally discussed whether vessels in the Alaskan Marine Highway System could be loaned to help ease the losses associated with Washington’s ferry repairs and inspections, but for reasons including their vessels’ incompatible side-loading design, this isn’t a viable option.

Looking ahead to the Nov. 5 vote: Likely I-976 impacts

I-976’s limit of car license fees to $30 and elimination of the 0.3 percent sales tax on vehicles may sound like a win for Washington’s households on the surface, but how our taxpayers will pay down the road, should the measure pass on Nov. 5, could be significant.

If Mukilteo Initiative to the People activist Tim Eyman’s latest ballot measure passes, per the Office of Financial Management, a $1.9 billion fund loss is at stake for the State of Washington’s infrastructure and transit projects, while towns and cities face a loss of $2.3 billion. OFM’s Fiscal Impact Statement detailed projected earnings losses for the Puget Sound Ferry Operations, Motor Vehicle Account and Washington State Police Highway Account as a result of the vehicle license cap. Beyond the likely cuts to maintenance and construction budgets (and thus more potential ferry delays and sailing reductions) the WSP, for instance, supplies security for highways, ferries and their terminals.

Jim Corenman, chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee, believes that “I-976, if passed, would be a disaster for most transit modes other than cars. Given WSF’s current $45 million biennium allocation from the multimodal account—about 9 percent of its operating income—significant service reductions and/or fare increases are likely.” Corenman notes that passage of Eyman’s I-695 in 2000 resulted in nearly doubled fare increases over the following years, and halted new vessel construction for the next decade.

It remains to be seen what will be addressed in the governor’s supplemental budgets following the November election’s decisions.

Relief in sight?

The WSF Community Engagement Plan that will organize discussions regarding changes to ferry schedules in the San Juans will begin in January 2020. These open houses and online opportunities for comment follow a similar WSF public discussion initiative for Seattle’s Triangle Route schedule changes, which were recently implemented. In recent community discussions, San Juan islanders contributed hundreds of concerns and ideas to WSF.

“It’s an agency rule that you can’t only collect comments and suggestions from the public — you have to act on them,” Ian Sterling, director of communications for WSF, said.

As of August’s Washington State Transportation Commission report, Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature authorized WSF to explore a Good to Go! pilot program, which would expand the automatic toll system in use on highways and bridges to also collect ferry fares. WSF is awaiting data from a test study now to establish the next steps in the program’s design and its timeline.

A low-income passenger fare pilot program known as Orca Relief is also in review for possible roll-out in 2020, contingent on receiving funds from the state Legislature and approval from the commission to proceed.

In addition to these proposed programs, WSF is introducing advances in kiosk sales, WSDOT smartphone app information on ferry schedules and highway traffic, and bar code scanning at new turnstiles for faster boarding, similar to what’s used at airports with e-ticketing.

Facts to fathom

• The San Juans routes, which see sharp seasonal inclines and declines according to WSF, represent 9 percent of Washington’s overall ferry traffic, but 25 percent of the costs.

• Washington State Ferries is mandated to recoup 70 percent of its operating costs from passenger fares. Those earnings fund maintenance of existing ferries and construction of new vessels to replace the aging fleet.

• The Oct. 1 fare increases included 2.5 percent for passenger vehicles; 5 percent for oversized vehicles on the Anacortes-Sidney route; 2 percent for passengers; and a one-way standard vehicle passage fare for no-shows. Starting May 1, 2020, the fares will rise again the same amounts as the Oct. 1 increases, with an additional 25-cent capital surcharge collected for funding construction of a new vessel.

• The oldest ferry in the fleet, the Tillikum, was built in the 1950s using a WWII destroyer motor; the newest ferry being built will utilize hybrid electric power, reducing fuel costs and interference with marine mammals.

According to BallotPedia, in the last 10 years six of 15 of Tim Eyman’s ballot measures have been defeated, while another seven of the 15 have been overturned or invalidated.