Declaring that she “can’t keep bailing out” ferries, Gov. Chris Gregoire heralded in another episode in the long-running ferry soap opera.
Here’s a thumbnail history that may help you appreciate the drama.
With a 1935 wildcat strike crippling the Kitsap County Transportation Company, Capt. Alexander Peabody shanghaied its ferry routes to make his Black Ball Line the sole cross-sound ferry service.
Feisty riders and strikes were the norm. When a 1939 strike threatened cutting service for the third time in five years, 200 armed Vashon Islanders stormed the ferry Vashon to seize it before the strike began. With WWII, turbulence subsided and the Black Ball Line prospered from the surge in Bremerton Navy Yard workers and a federal fare subsidy.
As post-war ferry traffic diminished and subsidies ended, Capt. Peabody waged a colorful, but unsuccessful, crusade to raise fares. While the captain remained convinced that state-owned ferries were an unholy monopoly, by 1951 he was prodded by his bankers to sell his Black Ball Line to Washington’s Toll Bridge Authority.
Most, including Capt. Peabody, thought that Puget Sound’s ferries would eventually be replaced by a network of bridges and tunnels.
When red ink appeared in the 1960s, the Toll Authority solved the problem by using ferry fares to guarantee bonds for the new Hood Canal Bridge. Thereafter the bridge’s tolls provided revenue for running ferries.
As costs continued to rise in the 1970s, ferries were kept afloat by double-digit fare increases and a portion of the new gas tax.
Costly rework, lawsuits and scandal of newly built Issaquah ferries from 1979 to 1981 devoured capital funds. When the Hood Canal Bridge sank in 1979, the ferries’ cut of toll revenue went with it.
Raiding capital accounts to fill the operating gap created a shortage that led an the ill-fated decision to refurbish our 1920s-era Steel Electric ferries instead of replacing them.
In 1981, the legislature abolished ferry worker salary bargaining, using surveys instead to set wages. While unions held on to bargaining for work conditions and benefits, a three-day strike at all West Coast ports broke out nonetheless.
To end it, Gov. John Spellman exchanged a no-strike agreement for restored salary bargaining setting up the not-so-ferry-friendly Maritime Employees’ Commission.
The MVET bungle
In the 1980s, with new gas taxes funding ferries, fares again stabilized and terminal modernization was started with Kingston/Edmonds being an early beneficiary.
Worried over volatile gas tax revenue, Ferries made another star-crossed decision to swap its dedicated gas tax revenue for a cut of MVET revenue instead.
The highly successful Jumbo Mark II ferry program (1997-2000) increased ferry capacity syste-wide by adding large, cost-effective ferries to Kingston and Bainbridge while pushing bigger boats to the other routes.
WSF also demonstrated passenger ferries at Kingston with its study becoming the blueprint for the subsequent Kitsap Transit, Aqua Express and the current SoundRunner project.
Fares were shifted to having drivers pay for the volume of space that they used and to have all routes charge the same price per mile.
Central Sound routes, however, would have the same fare based on the Bainbridge/Seattle distance. So Kingston/Edmonds riders would pay a 14 percent premium while Bremerton riders got a 40 percent discount.
A failed prophesy
Irked that the MVET was over-estimating car values, voters repealed the tax in 1999 and Ferries lost its one-third cut of MVET revenue. While other MVET funded programs backfilled their loss, WSDOT bought into the Blue Ribbon Committee on Transportation (BRCT) prophecy that an 80 percent farebox recovery would make everything A-OK.
So ferry operations were left out of the 2003 and 2005 gas tax hikes while an unrelenting transportation commissioner (also BRCT soothsayer) escalated fares. After reaching 75 percent in 2005, recovery rates tumbled as tapped-out riders were squeezed off the boats while labor and fuel costs soared.
End of the line
By 2003, WSF had settled on a 144-car new ferry design with three 144s eventually replacing Kingston’s two Jumbo ferries. The process halted when Tacoma’s Martinac shipyard sued when its design was excluded from the competition and when Port Townsend/Keystone revolted over the impact of a large 144-car ferry. In 2007, the discovery of hull rust tied up all four Steel Electric ferries on Thanksgiving weekend.
When the ferries were condemned as unsafe, WSF plunged into a crash building program using a 64-car ferry design recently built for the Massachusetts Steamboat Authority. Design changes, non-competitive bidding, and “built in Washington” rules doubled the expected ferry cost; consuming the 144-car ferries’ funding and equipment.
In 2006, after years of stalemate, the governor’s office took over WSF’s contract negotiations. The settlement and a lawsuit over back pay bumped labor costs up by 25 percent.
To reduce costs, a 2007 legislative study unsuccessfully proposed more flexible work rules and benefits in line with other state employees. Gridlock resumed.
By 2010 work rule constraints left Kingston, and other runs with problematic sailing schedules while unrelenting “Waste on the Water” exposés fueled public cynicism of both ferry management and labor.
Walt Elliott is chair of the Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee.