Rep. Nance works to fix state ferry system

Ferry service in Kitsap County needs help, and state Rep. Greg Nance of Bainbridge Island has some ideas to provide it.

On Jan. 27, Nance of Washington’s 23rd Legislative District, which includes northern Kitsap and BI, is holding town halls to hear about the problems with the Washington State Ferries service directly from constituents.

“For too long, WSF was underfunded and now folks across Kitsap and the state are paying the price,” Nance said in a news release. “Our ferry system needs a solid financial foundation to deliver. Washington state has the second-largest ferry system in the world. But we’re facing major headwinds. We’ve gotta work together to fix our ferries.”

On the WSF’s end, the issue is trifold: the boats are old, the crew is dwindling, and travel isn’t what it used to be. In turn, Nance has proposed a raft of legislation that addresses two of those issues bow-on.

Since COVID, the WSF has reported steady — but not strong — recovery in ridership, with passenger counts in 2023 capping at about three-quarters of pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, more than half the fleet is over 40 years old (the average lifespan of a passenger ferry being 25-30 years), which means the vessels need more maintenance more often — at the expense of sailings available for riders. And finally, due to an international shortage of mariners and poor recruitment since the pandemic, the system is facing unprecedented staffing shortages — which translates to unplanned service reductions and poorer reliability.

Nance’s plan focuses on improving the ferries and increasing staffing, both of which will lead to better reliability and improved public trust, he said in published reports.

Nance sought federal funding in November for the repair and maintenance efforts required to bring the WSF fleet up to speed, and made a case for hybrid ferries — arguing that they would consume less diesel fuel, saving taxpayer money at the pump and improving climate impacts.

As for the maritime labor shortage, the solution is a matter of competition, Nance said. WSF can entice more trainees through retention and signing bonuses, and do more to recruit skilled veterans from Western Washington naval bases.

Finally, Nance also called for more administrative transparency in the state Department of Transportation and for the creation of a real-time public dashboard of WSF performance metrics.

Out of the three prongs, understaffing and an undersized fleet are the most pressing, WSF representative Ian Sterling said. “Both are critical to ferry service, though it will take much longer to build the number of boats needed than to solve the majority of staff shortages.”

Public transportation worldwide has taken a hit due to COVID, and WSF is a lifeline for many Washington residents, Nance said. Its operation is crucial to Kitsap’s success. “Folks should be able to rely on our ferry system for regular, reliable sailings but right now they can’t,” Nance says in a release. “Things need to change.”

According to the WSF’s 2023 report, the number of vessels sailing to Kitsap have been nearly restored to regular capacity of two boats per route. The only route still lacking a vessel is Seattle/Bremerton. However, while sailings systemwide are consistent, the service is still tardy: one in five boats arrives or departs late.

Sterling said the state has been generous with funding to recruit, hire, train and retain new employees. In 2022, the legislature also updated laws regarding the construction of new vessels, which should expedite the process. “Maintaining that support means not only short-term, but longer-term stability of WSF’s system,” Sterling said. “With more boats and more people, we can close the gap.”