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Buttigieg says federal investments will make ferries more reliable, but it's unclear when

A brown-haired man in a white shirt stands against a railing, listening to a white-haired woman standing at a podium; another light-haired man in a sport coat stands behind her. Behind them is the Port Orchard marina, and a dock, a boat, a jetty, and a few people sitting at tables.
During a visit to Port Orchard, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, left, listens to Washington Senator Patty Murray, middle, as U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, right, looks on.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to Washington state Thursday and Friday, visiting ports and railroad crossings to highlight local investments from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill. Among those investments $11.6 million is marked for the state ferry system, including an electric charging facility at the Clinton Ferry Terminal, and a new terminal at Southworth.

Yet the same morning the secretary rode to Port Orchard, ferries were cancelled in Coupeville, Port Townsend, and Friday Harbor, in what's become a regular occurrence around Puget Sound.

Last year, delays hit a 10 year high, and there were 2,700 cancellations — triple the number in 2019, though only a little over 2% of the total scheduled trips all year.

When questioned by reporters in Port Orchard, Buttigieg acknowledged the issues with the state's aging fleet, staffing, and delays building new ships.

"I will emphasize, you know, having the largest ferry fleet in the country also means having the largest challenges of any ferry fleet in the country," Buttigieg said.

An outsized number of delays were in the San Juan Islands, where islanders often depend on the ferries to get to school and truck in everything that can’t be flown in. There, some worry ferry reliability will get worse before it gets better.

Jim Corenman chaired the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Council for a decade and retired in February. He doesn't expect investments to make sailings more reliable for years.

"The two supers that are, right now, serving up here, the 144-car superclass [ferries] — they're approaching 60 years," Corenman said.

Corenman said while the ferries are well maintained, the machinery and vessels continue to age.

"I hate to be pessimistic. That's the reality — there's no magic wand here," he said.

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.