State ferry system and economy need new ferries | Guest column

by Rick Hughes

San Juan County Council

Washington State Ferries’ new Long Range Plan, released in January, was the result of nearly two years of input, experience and expertise of a wide range of stakeholders who know what it takes to ensure the viability of the largest ferry system in the United States.

Advisory committees from all the state’s ferry communities; businesses; transportation advocates; local governments; elected officials; and tribal governments were among those who had a say in the plan.

It’s no coincidence that the most pressing recommendations from these leaders revolved around service reliability and building five new 144-car Olympic-class ferries as soon as possible.

The state ferry system is aging and overburdened and is having difficulty meeting the needs of riders, even in its current form. But things will get worse if the Legislature doesn’t act. Thirteen of the fleet’s 23 vessels are due for retirement over the next 20 years. During that same period, state ferry ridership is expected to grow by more than 30 percent, from 24.5 million riders to 32 million. For many Washington residents and visitors that live and visit ferry-served communities, Washington State Ferries is the State Highway System and our farm-to-market route. WSF does not just serve ferry communities, but provides access to goods and services from around the state and for many, reliable routes to health care and veterans services.

The time is now for new ferries. New vessels need to be constructed quickly and added to the ferry fleet in order to relieve boats desperately needing maintenance and to replace boats overdue for retirement. If we don’t get started now, it’ll be years before a new boat can be added to the system.

According to WSF, the Olympic-class vessels are the right size and design to begin strengthening the WSF fleet for the long-term. They are large enough to serve nearly every route in the system, and building more of them will allow the ferry system to standardize its fleet under a common hull design, leading to cost efficiencies in training and spare parts, and interchangeability of labor.

The Long Range Plan also states that the existing Olympic-class design can also be reworked for hybrid electric-diesel propulsion, allowing WSF to meet its emission reduction targets and support our state’s environmental goals and provide immediate assistance to helping the long term survival of Chinook salmon and the Southern resident killer whale population.

These new boats are needed to ensure the viability of the state ferry system. The system is at a crossroads, where service reliability is beginning to deteriorate despite WSF’s efforts to prioritize service over other competing needs.

Here in the San Juan Islands, ferry ridership continues to grow, and demand for ferry service is increasing. The ferry system also acts as a gateway for tourism, commerce and medical transport, which provides support for our local economy. But the Tillikum turns 60 years old this year and has reached the end of its service life. Four out of the five ferries serving in San Juan County have gold stripes on their smokestacks, which in the nautical world is a great honor, 50 years of service, but with this service comes ever-increasing maintenance costs and potential breakdowns. In the coming years, these four ferries are all set to be retired. We simply can’t wait. Investing in new ferries is critical for the long-term health of our economy and mobility of our residents.

State lawmakers should approve funding for new ferries as soon as possible. The state’s ferry communities need new vessels and a reliable ferry system.

Rick Hughes is the San Juan County Council Member from District 2, Orcas Island, and a member of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee.