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Struggling state ferry system finds its way in Washington governor’s race


Struggling state ferry system finds its way in Washington governor’s race

Apr 13, 2024 | 12:32 pm ET
By Jerry Cornfield
Struggling state ferry system finds its way in Washington governor’s race
The MV Kittitas, one of the vessels in the Washington State Ferries fleet. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

Washington’s front-running Democratic candidate for governor is embracing a Republican idea that would hasten building of new ferries and slow the state’s push to electrify the fleet.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson says he supports constructing two diesel-powered vessels “if this is the fastest solution” to adding boats needed to boost reliability of service amid the ongoing threat of cancellations when an existing vessel breaks down.

The approach is an element of Ferguson’s plan, released this week, to address a confluence of challenges besetting Washington State Ferries, the nation’s largest public ferry system that serves as a marine highway for businesses, tourists and daily commuters.

Other pieces of the plan include elevating the head of ferries to a cabinet level position, alongside the secretary of transportation, and expanding efforts to recruit and retain employees. Labor shortages are another cause of service disruptions.

His position regarding diesel ferries is the eye-catcher. It aligns him with Republicans – who proposed it during the past session – and puts him at odds with Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic lawmakers who have charted a course for Washington to have an emission-free ferry fleet by 2050. 

“The end goal is to electrify the fleet but what’s become clear is we’ve got a crisis. We’ve got to treat it like a crisis. Half measures won’t cut it,” Ferguson said.

He denied his stance signals a retreat from his party’s aggressive climate agenda. It’s recognition that different actions are needed for the sake of those living on islands who are reliant on ferries, Ferguson said.

Bids can be sought separately for hybrid-electric boats, he said. Meanwhile, he said, there should be greater use of passenger-only ferries until any new boats arrive.

“If I lived in the San Juan Islands, I would want the state to be taking drastic actions to address the crisis,” Ferguson said.

‘I think we are aligned’

Two Republican lawmakers who put forth proposals this past session to build diesel ferries right away wondered why Ferguson didn’t engage on the issue earlier if it was of such importance.

And Republican gubernatorial candidate Dave Reichert, a former congressman, chided Ferguson for “pilfering others’ ideas and claiming them as his own.”

“Sounds like Bob hopped a ride on the wrong ferry,” he said in a statement.

Reichert said he would fast-track contracts for up to five new “clean diesel-powered ferries” that can be converted later to hybrid electric. He also backed establishing passenger-only ferry service between islands and expediting hiring of ferry workers to ease labor shortages.

But the Democratic chair of the Senate Transportation Committee said he didn’t see Ferguson pushing “a change in direction” from what’s been set by the Legislature.

“I think we are aligned in that we have to decarbonize our transportation system in a thoughtful, cost-effective way,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds. “I’m confident that our current approach will get us there.”

This spring, state ferries will solicit bids nationwide for five new hybrid-electric vessels. Responses are due by fall, he noted.

“If we get good prices and a good timeline, we should do that,” Liias said. “If we don’t, then we should definitely look for other options, including what Bob has outlined.”

Environmentalists backing Ferguson are confident he is committed to the clean fleet goal. 

“His plan is to ensure that residents who depend on ferries have reliable service during that transition,” said Joy Stanford, political and civic engagement director for Washington Conservation Action. “We will continue to push for the trajectory that makes that transition as fast as possible.”

‘Where the heck was Bob’s support?’

Washington started pouring a foundation for ferry electrification in 2019, committing to convert the three largest ferries in the fleet from diesel to hybrid-electric propulsion and to build up to five electric-hybrid Olympic class ferry boats.

Last August, Washington State Ferries inked a deal with the vessel-maker Vigor for the conversions. Several years earlier, Vigor reached a deal with the state to build the five boats with the first expected to arrive in 2022. But disagreements with the state on liability issues led to Vigor opting not to proceed, forcing the state to restart.

Now, it could be 2028 before the first one arrives. Given rising costs, the roughly $1 billion earmarked for new boats may not cover more than three.

Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee, sponsored a bill this past session to declare an emergency with regard to ferries. It directed Inslee to use his executive powers to expedite permitting and procuring of two ferries using the same design as current diesel Olympic-class vessels. 

He said he was surprised to see Ferguson’s plan because he’s been “absent” from any dialogue on transportation. Barkis said he doesn’t believe the attorney general agrees with Republicans but is “trying to distance himself from Inslee.”

Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Gig Harbor, backed Barkis’ bill and proposed a budget amendment to provide enough money to get the two vessels built in a hurry. Democrats voted down her amendment.

“Where the heck was Bob’s support when we needed him,” she said. “He had the opportunity to support us when we needed his help. It’s too late now. That’s the frustrating part.”