Ferry coalition hosts closed-door session with local, state leaders

Bremerton residents had once hoped that the reduction to a one-boat service on its Washington State Ferries route to and from Seattle would be temporary.

WSF has not restored the route for two years as of Sept. 7. But rather than protest, the Bremerton Ferry Coalition hopes to work with state and local officials to brainstorm how to bring back full service and make Bremerton a priority in the future.

The same day as the anniversary, local and state officials met with the coalition behind closed doors at the Norm Dicks Government Center, where Eric Morley presented the case for continued work on all levels to get Bremerton back on track. “Bremerton is frequently the first route impacted by a service disruption and also frequently the last restored,” he said. “So it’s in Bremerton’s best interest to lead the effort for some level of reform and action.”

While many state officials did not make the trip, WSF was represented by John Vezina.

Sen. Emily Randall jumped at the opportunity to share and hear ideas. “I think it’s always important that community voices are part of solution-making,” she said. “It’s why it’s important to me to have so many town halls and such. It’s important for me to show up to meetings like this where folks are coming to the table, ready to solve problems. I want to be there to help them.”

WSF has experienced systemwide setbacks since the reduced service announcement for the largest ferry fleet in the United States. Reasons ranged from troubles of old like lack of state funding and aging vessels on the brink of retirement to the fresh impacts of staffing shortages, increasing operating costs and constant delays. Add to that in April the Walla Walla ferry grounded and has since come in and out of service with no end in sight, and another recent ferry grounding in the San Juan Islands.

Even with the entire system affected, those impacted feel that Bremerton has and will continue to get the short end of the stick. “It felt like we weren’t being heard,” Morley said. “Maybe we got answers to questions, but it wasn’t responding to the sentiment, how we were feeling, what the Bremerton experience was. It felt as though we were shouting into an echo chamber, and it wasn’t resonating.”

Morley worked to change that last year with a protest on the corner of Burwell and Pacific. The “Fix Our Ferries” protest was small, but he knew many more shared the same frustrations with WSF and would want to mirror the passionate message that residents were tired of waiting for adequate service.

Less than a week later, the creation of the Bremerton Ferry Coalition was announced in collaboration with Elissa Torgeson as a way to send a unified message to state leadership demanding immediate response to the changes in ferry service. “I’m a Bremerton native, so I care a lot about this town,” Torgeson said about her involvement with the group. “I’ve already seen it go through decay and decline in downtown, and we were just getting to this great place, and then (reduced service) happened.”

The coalition has enjoyed some level of victory in its first year, notably its success in advocating alongside local leaders for Kitsap Fast Ferries to receive state funding while a second vessel could not be provided by WSF. However, as both the coalition and difficulties in getting the highly sought second boat have grown, questions arose about a second protest.

“We accomplished what we needed through the protest. We formed the (Bremerton Ferry) Coalition, we did what we needed, and now it’s time to shift the narrative,” Morley said.

He hopes to have similar success in this new format, talking about the true complexity of the issue that is WSF as a whole. While presenting data on the limited reliability of the route and lack of equity, he also admitted that no one person is to blame, nor is there one solution to the whole problem.

Rather than a loud demonstration, he said it will take sitting down with those you both agree and disagree with to come to a common ground. “We needed a whole bunch of people, the right people, in one room. We needed to bring forward voices in the impact stories that we’ve heard, but not have that be the emphasis of the meeting tonight,” he said.