Washington state leaders plea for federal funding to restore ferry system


There is a new, urgent request for federal money to help the Washington State Ferries (WSF) system.

“It’s a critical infrastructure piece that needs to be addressed and it’s going to be very expensive,” said Poulsbo Mayor Rebecca Erickson.

“Without any immediate solution for improving consistency and capacity, we expect the lack of ferry service will continue to have an adverse effect on our economy for many years to come,” Kitsap County Commissioner Katie Walters told KOMO News.

Walters and Erickson are two of 38 elected leaders from seven counties, eight cities, and two ports in western Washington who signed a letter seeking federal ferry program funding at the highest level possible in the fiscal year 2025 budget, to help the state fully restore ferry service.

“They just have one ferry sometimes, and then sometimes they don’t have any ferry,” occasional ferry rider Frank Giggans told KOMO News.

WSF said it has not yet recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, staff retirements that helped push it to low staffing levels and an aging fleet of boats.

The system is operating with less than 50% of the vessels it needs to run a full schedule. This means routes are either not running at all or running with far fewer sailings than passengers had before the pandemic.

FROM FEBRUARY | Lawmakers urge Inslee to declare state of emergency for Washington State Ferries

The system needs 26 boats, but right now only has 15. That number fell to just 14, earlier in the day Friday, when the Sealth fell out of service in need of repairs.

That took the Edmonds – Kingston route down to just one boat, instead of two, so at one point Friday, the wait for drivers leaving Edmonds was a whopping four hours.

“A lot of people, to negate that, circumvent the process by driving all the way around (Puget Sound),” said Giggans.

“I did miss the ferry because it wasn’t on time, so that was unfortunate,” Emily Ford told KOMO News.

WSF had a plan in place to restore service but abandoned it earlier this year. Now the state says it will not be able to fully restore service until new ferries are manufactured and put into service, which won’t happen until at least 2028.

“We commute on them, we go to doctors, and then we want to go see the Mariners. All of those activities, we use those as a highway and that’s the reason why I think we need to ask the federal government for funding,” Erickson said.

Working to get that money more quickly, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) delivered a letter to leadership of the House and Senate Transportation Committees and Housing and Urban Development Subcommittees urgently requesting federal ferry grant money for the state.

“We get federal dollars in many ways for transportation needs but not so much for ferries,” Erickson told KOMO. “Service reductions are having real impacts for our residents and our businesses here in Kitsap County and across Puget Sound.”

“Kitsap Transit has stepped in, and the state has helped supplement passenger-only fast ferry service. This has been well received, but more needs to be done. We need sustainable transportation and ferry funding to support our communities,” said Commissioner Walters.

The letter also expressed gratitude for more than $140 million in federal grants that WSF received over the last two fiscal years.

The local leaders who signed the letter stressed that robust federal investment is an important piece of the strategy to urgently restore full system service for the marine highway system.

Erickson said when you look at the state ferry routes on a map, you can see that they are providing the same service as the roads we drive on.

“You know, you wonder, if when you get up in the morning and you didn’t know you could get on the freeway. It was just gone. Think about what that would do to your life, and that’s kind of where we are right now,” said Erickson.

Even if federal funding comes through in the next budget cycle, new boats are still at least four years away because they don’t yet have a boat builder.

WSF held an online seminar for companies interested in submitting bids to build new hybrid-electric vessels in February.

WSF told KOMO it expected to have the bid window by the end of May.

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