The pressure is mounting for Washington State Ferries

When we finally leap into our summer ferry schedule we’ll be landing in a fleet that’s two boats short. When breakdowns occur there won’t be back-ups. Olympia wags fingers at us voters for this debacle by passing I-695. That canard blinds those self-excusers to the flaws in how ferry decisions have been made. You can decide what these flaws are.

MVET’s non-recovery

When I-695 repealed the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) a “Blue Ribbon (riders not represented) Committee” asserted that raising fares would cover ferry operating costs. Predictably, labor costs kept pace with fare increases so that, after 230 percent in hikes, Washington State Ferries (WSF) still needs a $64 million subsidy. The 2003 “Little Nickel” and 2005 “TPA” fuel taxes more than recovered all lost MVET revenue. Under the illusion of ferries becoming self-sustaining however these taxes included only one new boat when, at the time, we needed four.

Construction delays

Building 144-car “Olympic Class” ferries is a strategy to have standard boats on all major routes. No sooner had the contract gone out for bid when legal wrangling over changing specifications tied it up for over a year. As if on queue, the 2007 discovery of advanced corrosion caused all the 80-year old, “steel electric” ferries serving Port Townsend to be permanently retired … on Thanksgiving.

Not on my route

When Port Townsend politicians opposed using 144-car Olympics to replace the “steel electrics”, the standard ferry strategy was deep-sixed for three copies of the 64-car Island Home ferry. Designed for Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Islands, these boats are arguably adequate for Port Townsend and Fort Defiance, but a very bad fit elsewhere.

All stop!

By the time Olympic ferry building got back on track in 2012 we needed 18 new boats in 20 years. In 2018 however with ferry construction humming. Governor Inslee ordered it stopped and shifted to plug-in, hybrid ferries. Developing safety standards, resolving technical issues, and starting up a new production line will take at least four more years.

Ailing ferries

Meanwhile our 60s-era, “Super” class ferries are crumbling. With only 35 percent of maintenance being funded, when a costly propulsion system’s renewal came due for Hyak, WSF tried to leverage a federal grant to convert her to a hybrid. When that fell through, Hyak was retired early to avoid her $37 million maintenance backlog. When the USCG then directed Elwha’s car deck to be repaired, she also was retired as well, leaving our ferries up the creek without two reserve boat paddles.

Repair or Replace

Retirements without replacements should be balanced against the lost service and revenue. Consider the refurbishing the 60’s era, B-52 “stratosaurus.” It wasn’t just about saving money, it was about keeping the aircraft flying. New B-21s and B-2’s cost nearly $1 billion each.

The governor’s hybrid ferry’s cost (not including the charging stations) will be twice what B.C. Ferries paid for their similar sized SALISH ferries. In the late 90’s B.C. Ferries had learned a lesson with their politically-motivated FastCat ferry. This expensive blunder resulted in BCF being restructured to function like a private business.

Emerging Themes

1. We have good people working the boats.

2. Priorities shift with the winds of governors, legislative chairs, and ferry directors.

3. In decisions, customers have become a secondary consideration.

Customers or cattle?

Our ferries carry riders safely, mostly on schedule, and in reasonable comfort. But so does Burlington Northern. At transit agencies, where fares cover only 17 percent of costs, decisions are made by boards representing the users. Washington Ferries however, where riders pay 75 percent of costs, doesn’t have that transparency or accountability.

My take: our fleet wouldn’t be in these shoal waters had riders been charting the course.