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Legislators throw a life ring to Washington’s ‘other’ ferries

A ferry in the water with buildings and cars on shore in the background.
Tom Banse
Salish Current
Ferry systems serving San Juan, Skagit and Whatcom counties are looking for funding options to solve service challenges; over-budget bids have temporarily stalled the planned all-electric replacement of the aging ferry between Anacortes and Guemes Island. 

Legislative budget writers in Olympia laid out proposals this week for how to keep plans afloat to launch electric ferry boats on Puget Sound. But the increased state aid for Skagit County, Kitsap Transit and Washington State Ferries comes with a major catch: the promised money vanishes if voters repeal the 2021 Climate Commitment Act (cap-and-trade program) in November.

What’s at stake in Skagit County is a project to replace the aging Guemes Island ferry with a larger, all-electric boat. Last month, the county commission rejected the bids to construct the new battery-powered ferry after all the bids exceeded the project budget. The county quickly submitted a request to the Legislature for an additional $12 million, which met with favor this week in the state House, but not in the Senate.

Kitsap Transit is trying to advance its preliminary design for a 150-passenger, battery-powered hydrofoil ferry for the Seattle-Bremerton run. North Puget Sound shipyards could be contenders to assemble that novel vessel. Washington’s governor and lawmakers blessed the hydrofoil plans with $4 million to get the ferry design finalized with Coast Guard approval and to build shoreside charging infrastructure.

Rendering of proposed electric hydrofoil ferry that Washington legislators and Kitsap Transit propose to advance toward final design — contingent on voter rejection of I-2117 this November.
Kitsap Transit
Rendering of proposed electric hydrofoil ferry that Washington legislators and Kitsap Transit propose to advance toward final design — contingent on voter rejection of I-2117 this November.

San Juan County officials and residents made a concerted effort in Olympia this winter to win emergency support to supplement their currently unreliable state ferry service with a locally operated interisland ferry. The governor and state Senate earmarked money to study that specific idea, but the state House is not on board, making the outcome uncertain.

Initiative drama

Meanwhile, the state House and Senate Transportation Committee chairs are hopeful $1.2 billion will be enough to buy five new hybrid-electric car ferries to bolster WSF’s flagging fleet.

Over the past year, lawmakers and ferry system managers revamped the procurement parameters to induce more shipyard competition for the contract. But the November election now adds another dimension of drama to the previous problem of price escalation.

State lawmakers propose to pay for the Guemes Island ferry cost overrun, the Kitsap electric hydrofoil next phase and one to two of the new 144-car state ferries with revenue from Washington’s cap-and-trade pollution permit auctions.

The rub is that a conservative group called Let’s Go Washington collected more than 400,000 initiative petition signatures to repeal the cap-and-trade program. Critics of the climate policy blame it for sharply increasing gas prices over the past year as well as contributing to utility rate hikes. The initiative measure, I-2117, is now headed to the November statewide ballot.

Crowded chopping block

The ferry spending is far from alone on the chopping block. The 2024 spending blueprints unveiled in Olympia this week list page after page of proposed purchases and construction for which the money cannot be spent until after the November election. Electric school buses, new bike paths, wildfire risk reduction and transit improvements are some other categories of projects made contingent on voter rejection of I-2117.

“All of those things are at risk if the Climate Commitment Act is repealed,“ House Majority Leader Joe Fitzgibbon (D-West Seattle) said at a press briefing. “We don’t want to start a new program and then have it immediately have to stop in case the initiative does pass.”

Lawmakers can only guess at this early stage what verdict voters will render on the repeal initiative in November. Democratic and Republican legislators are collaborating in some cases on budget contingency plans in case the lucrative revenue stream from carbon pollution allowances dries up. Republicans have already suggested one way to stretch the remaining dollars would be to scrap battery-electric ferry propulsion in favor of traditional diesel engine power for new state ferries.

An Orcas Island business owner who has long advocated for better ferry service teed up a variation of the idea while testifying to a state House committee on Monday.

“I just think we need to start building boats as soon as bloody possible and I think there is a way you could build the first new boat without it being a hybrid,” said Rick Hughes, who previously served on the county council. “You could leave space for the batteries at the front of the boat to allow it to be modified in the future.”

All-electric for Guemes

Skagit County commissioners voted in 2018 to replace the aging diesel ferry that shuttles between Anacortes and Guemes Island with a larger, all-electric boat. Choosing battery power for the new 28-car, county-operated ferry added considerably more cost upfront, but will hopefully be cheaper to operate and maintain and is gentler on the environment.

Several Scandinavian countries have put fully electric ferries into service, but the new Guemes Island vessel could be one of the first battery-electric car ferries in North America.

Appearing before the state House Transportation Committee earlier this week, grateful Skagit County lobbyist Josh Weiss sounded unbothered by the election outcome caveat that the state representatives attached to their support for covering cost escalation.

“If I could channel the thanks of Skagit County for the additional funding on the Guemes Island [ferry] electrification, it really would look like an unmitigated, full-on Travis Kelce victory howl,” Weiss said, referring to the Super Bowl-winning football player.

A boat leaving a dock going out into the water.
Tom Banse
Salish Current
Vashon Island ferry commuters are likely to get additional midday, workweek roundtrips to downtown Seattle via the King County Water Taxi until Washington State Ferries restores full service.

Weiss still has work to do to lobby state senators to accept the House’s position on the additional Guemes ferry funding. The proposed Senate Transportation spending blueprint favors spending more on pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements instead. The two chambers need to reach agreement over the next two weeks to meet the legislative session adjournment deadline of March 7.

Hydrofoil for Kitsap

Kitsap Transit leaders got interested in an electric hydrofoil concept for the next-generation of cross-sound passenger-only ferries because the flying boat design offered the ability to travel faster with less wake and emissions than a diesel ferry. Anacortes-based Bieker Boats is working with fellow naval architecture and engineering firm Glosten of Seattle to finalize and validate the design, which may involve building a one-fifth scale prototype next.

Some online commenters mocked the hydrofoil plans when the preliminary design was revealed because they suspected the spindly looking hydrofoil wings would be wrecked by impacts from floating logs or semi-submerged “deadheads.” Kitsap Transit said on its fast foil project webpage that the flying boat design includes automated object detection and a patent-pending “collision absorption system.” The vessel specs list a cruising speed of 30 knots.

The latest $4 million in state funding that the governor, House and Senate agreed to — contingent on the November initiative vote — is not enough to move into vessel construction. Kitsap Transit is pursuing a federal Department of Transportation grant for that.

Separate from the hydrofoil project, state lawmakers allocated an additional $4 million to Kitsap Transit and $3.2 million to the King County Water Taxi to support increased passenger-only ferry service between Seattle and Bremerton and Seattle and Vashon Island through the middle of 2025.

The added foot ferry roundtrips are meant to fill gaps in the reduced WSF service. This subsidy comes out of the regular state ferry operating budget and is not linked to the November election.

San Juan left at the altar?

“In San Juan County, we’re near catastrophe almost every day when a boat doesn’t show up or a crew isn’t available,” Hughes said.

In letters and in-person entreaties to legislators, other islanders elaborated about too many instances of students, workers and visitors getting stranded overnight away from their homes by ferry disruptions. County officials and residents teamed up to press the governor and Legislature for supplementary passenger-only ferry service akin to what the state agreed to subsidize in the Central Puget Sound.

“We heard loud and clear that we need to do more to support ferry communities … while we await for our new boats to arrive,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chair Marko Liias (D-Edmonds) on Tuesday.

[Ed.: Updated 8:55 p.m, Feb. 21, 2024] This week, the state Senate proposed a foot ferry study with a limited budget, while the draft House transportation spending blueprint initially had nothing for that. But by Wednesday, the House members had a change of heart and added in $500,000 for a Puget Sound-wide study of potential new state-supported passenger-only routes. The list of possible routes included interisland service in the San Juan Islands as well as a seasonal Bellingham-Friday Harbor run and six other urban routes previously put forward by the Puget Sound Regional Council in 2020.

By contrast, Senate budget writers specified that the Washington State Department of Transportation should spend $600,000 “to evaluate the feasibility of passenger-only ferry service to support existing ferry service routes in the San Juan Islands” specifically, and made no mention of the Seattle metro area.

The senators wrote that WSDOT should hire an independent consultant to identify foot ferry routes with viable ridership in the island archipelago and should contemplate both private and public operation of the supplementary ferry service. In both cases, the deadline to deliver a final report back to the Legislature would be June 2025, which is long after the next legislative session’s scheduled adjournment.

As in the case of the differing approaches on the Guemes Island ferry, state House and Senate negotiators will have to find some sort of compromise over the next two weeks to align their differing directions.

Lummi replacement: island in the storm

One Northwest Washington ferry operator has mostly steered clear of the fiscal riptides: Whatcom County. The county has labored for years to scrape together local tax revenue along with state and federal grants to replace the venerable Lummi Island ferry, now more than 60 years old.

A ferry is sailing out into the water with a snow-covered mountain in the background.
Tom Banse
Salish Current
Whatcom County described the current Lummi Island ferry as “functionally obsolete” in a successful application for a $25 million federal grant to modernize the ferry route.

Roland Middleton, the special programs manager in the county public works administration, said the ferry project is presently not quite fully funded. He said county leaders are contemplating a modest bond issue and probably will seek additional state aid during the 2025 legislative session to cover cost inflation on both the new vessel acquisition and related terminal modernizations.

“There’s more work to do than anyone anticipated,” Middleton said in an interview Wednesday. “Delay is preferable to error.”

Whatcom County’s original plan to go out to bid for the new ferry in the first half of this year has been pushed back to sometime next year. The county plans to seek bids to replace the 20-car Whatcom Chief with a plug-in hybrid electric vessel. The payoff in choosing a pricier, cutting-edge propulsion technology would be that the new 34-car Lummi Island ferry could idle at the dock emissions-free and make the eight-minute crossing from Gooseberry Point to the island on battery power most of the time. The design for the new ferry includes a diesel backup engine that could kick in whenever the battery level gets low.

The Salish Current is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, online local news organization serving Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties. We report local news with independence and strict journalistic integrity, providing fact-based information and a forum for civil commentary.

Updated: February 22, 2024 at 9:50 AM PST
This story has been updated to include the pivot by the state House Transportation Committee on funding a study of passenger-only ferry service in the San Juan Islands.
Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.