New ferries to bolster fleet still years away

  • By Aspen Anderson Washington State Journal
  • Wednesday, March 13, 2024 1:30am
  • NewsRegional News

Washington’s ferry system is in jeopardy. It is struggling to meet the demands of its routes, and officials say it may be three to four years before any new ferry can go into service. Currently, 19 ferries serve the island communities of Washington, but the state needs 26 boats to fully fill the sailing schedule.

While some are blaming a switch to electric boats for the delay in getting new vessels built, the problems go back nearly 25 years.

In 1999, voters approved Initiative 695, which repealed the state’s motor vehicle excise tax. After the state Supreme Court found that unconstitutional, the Legislature stepped in to cut the tax, eliminating a major funding source for Washington State Ferries (WSF). As a result, from 2000-2010, no new boats were built when the state should have been making a boat a year, said Ian Sterling, WSF director of communications. No new ferries were built until 2010, after the state was forced to pull the aging steel electric class ferries from service after cracks were found in their hulls.

Three 750-passenger ferries were added to the fleet in 2010 and 2011. Since then, four new boats were added. But after a decade of inaction, the replacement of ferries isn’t happening fast enough to keep up with demand.

“It’s been kicked down the road, kicked down the road, now you have a problem,” Sterling said. “As they retire as a fleet and wear out, there is nothing to replace them.”

The state looked for ferries it might be able to buy, but Sterling said: “There’s just not a big inventory out there of boats we could just go get off the shelf.”

In 2018, the state approved construction of five new ferries, one every year, but Gov. Jay Inslee insisted electric hybrid ferries be built, and now the state is having difficulty finding builders who will do the job for the money the state has available.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, urged the governor to declare a state of emergency for the ferry system and build two diesel ferries now. Barkis said he believes because the state already has a diesel boat builder, this would provide faster relief for the fleet.

“We can always have these conversions later when we have the fleet stabilized,” Barkis said.

The WSF disagrees.

“We are well down the road of electrification at this point, so to stop and just go back to diesel doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Sterling said.

Converting the fleet to hybrid diesel-electric boats, however, is challenging. Vigor, the builder originally selected to build the hybrid ferries, proposed a price of $200 million, much higher than DOT estimates, and the state and Vigor could not settle on a price.

Now, the search for a boat builder is nationwide, not just statewide. Sterling said if it must, the state is open to having multiple contracts with multiple builders if it means more than one boat can be built at a time. Many builders are interested, and bids are due mid-spring.

The Wenatchee, a jumbo MK-II ferry built in 1989, will be the first to be modified to run on electricity. It should be in the water this fall, Sterling said. As for the rest of the fleet, Barkis said getting one new boat by the end of the decade might be the reality, while Sen. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, said he thinks two new boats could arrive in late 2027 or early 2028.

“With ferries, I am trying to underpromise and overdeliver. I think we have given people false hope for many years,” Liias said.

The issue is not the construction of electric boats, as electric boats exist worldwide. Price is the big issue.

“We do have a bucket of money to build these boats,” Barkis said. “The challenge is, if we keep seeing these bids come in at twice and three times what they were, we won’t be able to build the number of boats that we need within this budget.”

In the long run, electric ferries will be a great deal for taxpayers, Sterling predicted, as they will last 30 years longer than a boat running on diesel fuel. “It’s great for the environment, but we are burning 150 million gallons of diesel fuel a year, so there is a big cost to that, and being able to run on electricity eliminates a large part of that cost,” Sterling said.

On top of electrifying the fleet, all of the ports need a reliable and steady electrical connection to recharge batteries while ferries are docked.

The available budget for port electrification, combined with the cost of boats, has legislators worried. The current budget funds five new boats. Sterling said the boats can be put in the water regardless of port electrification because the hybrid boats can run on diesel while the batteries recharge.

WSF wants to achieve an entirely electric fleet by 2050. That involves converting six current vessels to hybrid-electric propulsion, building 16 new hybrid-electric vessels and installing shore charging capabilities at 16 terminals.

But considering the current condition of the fleet, getting there might be difficult.

“God forbid we have any problems within the fleet, which we have seen time and time again. We don’t have anything to back it up,” Barkis said.

And Liias said there won’t be any quick fixes.

“We can’t promise rosy things to ferry communities anymore,” Liias said. “We have to be dead honest with folks about what’s possible. It is not possible to get boats faster than 2027 or 2028.”

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The Washington State Journal is a nonprofit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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