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Washington state officially launches first new construction in effort to electrify ferries

Washington’s ferry system runs on diesel fuel that causes more air pollution than anything else the state transportation department operates. That’s changing as the state Department of Transportation works to convert two of its Jumbo Mark 2 ferries to hybrid-electric propulsion. And now it has officially launched the first new construction of a hybrid ferry, amid much fanfare.  

Ferry contracts are a big deal: the green and white commuter boats are icons of the state that get featured in all kinds of photo ops around Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. And they cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  

KNKX environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp's spot news coverage of the ferry launch event.

Gov. Jay Inslee led the kickoff event, which he framed as the start of a new era. With wind blowing across the deck of a hangar that faces the Duwamish River near Elliott Bay, he told several dozen guests this new vessel is reminiscent of the revolutionary aircraft he remembers coming out of Washington when he was a small boy, like the Boeing 707.

“Isn’t it great to be here today at Vigor in Seattle, Washington, which is going to revolutionize the maritime industry, where we are launching the first hybrid-electric ferry program in the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

Inslee expects this new breed of ferry to reduce carbon emissions dramatically – not just in the ferry system itself, but also by serving as a bold example for all kinds of other maritime operators.

And he promises it will create lots of family wage jobs in Washington state’s clean tech sector.

Vigor VP Mike Pearson leads the workforce that will build this new technology. Attending the ceremony in his hard hat, he said these are not just family wage jobs –which is important – he said they’re meaningful too, especially to younger people.

“So it’s a coming together of a new generation I think that’s really looking to be able to do something with this fantastic age of information,” Pearson said, adding that they get to build something tangible and see the results on the water once it’s done and improve the sector as they go.

“To do it better, smarter, more masterful and in a way that helps the environment,” he said.

The Legislature has so far authorized funding for only one new hybrid electric ferry, but transportation officials say they have up to five more in the pipeline. The cost will be roughly the same as for a traditional diesel Olympic Class vessel: $160 million dollars.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to