Gale force ferry service warnings

The state is talking about cuts in the neighborhood of 40 percent. But would such drastic cuts really happen?

The ferry Sealth

The ferry Sealth C.B. Hall

If the world were flat, one might assume that Washington's ferry system is about to sail off its edge. Recent pronouncements from Washington State Transportation secretary Paula Hammond and assistant secretary David Moseley have forecast a severe downsizing of Washington State Ferries (WSF) if prevailing financial assumptions hold true and the Legislature can't come up with quite a few more dimes for the system's tin cup.

History and political reality might suggest a less drastic future for the ferry system. But the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) leadership has started the discussion in stark terms.

In a presentation to Senate and House transportation committees at the start of the current legislative session, Hammond concluded that, absent new revenues, the system would have to eliminate six of its 11 routes altogether — Anacortes-Sidney, Port Townsend-Keystone, Seattle-Bremerton, Southworth-Fauntleroy, Southworth-Vashon, and Point Defiance-Tahlequah. Two other routes would see service cutbacks. A motorist from Southworth would have to go to Seattle to catch a ferry to Vashon, while a driver heading from Port Townsend to Oak Harbor would have to detour through Kingston and Edmonds. About a third of the 23-vessel fleet would go into mothballs, and the state would shutter six terminals.

At a recent Seattle roundtable on passenger-only ferries, Moseley, who runs Washington State Ferries (WSF), furnished more details. He presented a September 2011 accounting by which the ferry system will be running in the red by the 2013-2015 biennium. Two funds that have propped up WSF operations for years (since the 2000 abolition of the motor vehicle excise tax as a funding source) will likely end up with $36 million less than needed.

And the numbers may be headed further south. The governor's December supplemental budget revised the anticipated shortfall upward, to more than $70 million. The deficit will soar to close to $300 million in 2015-2017, in Moseley's accounting, but the corresponding figure in the governor's update was over $375 million.

In an interview with Crosscut, Moseley said that Hammond's scenario would translate into a 40 percent reduction in the provider's approximately 450 daily sailings.

But is this a do-or-die crisis, or an aggressive lobbying gambit?

AAA Washington lobbyist Dave Overstreet didn't minimize the threat to the thousands of motorists who use the system daily, but he was hardly hitting the panic button over the Hammond scenario. “I don''t think they'd cut any routes altogether,” he told Crosscut, “but I can see them cutting the service back, on the number of crossings.”

Still, he said, “we take [Hammond's scenario] seriously.”

In an e-mail interview, Senate Transportation Committee chair Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) didn't mince words: “As long as I’m here, no [routes] will be cut. Period. I’d cut back on road maintenance before I’d cut a ferry. I wouldn’t want to do that, but if that’s my only choice, people can drive on a bad road and still get where they’re going. They might have to drive slower and be more careful, but they’ll still get there.”

State law essentially treats the ferries as toll bridges, as links within the highway system. The ferry routes, were they roads, would represent about 1.4 percent of the state’s highway network. In the last biennium, however, WSF operations received about 4.5 percent of state funding for highways, while ferry capital needs took another 8 percent.

The motor vehicle and multimodal accounts, the two funds involved in supporting WSF operations, are at the crux of the debate. The former, which has accounted for 64 percent of the funding transfers in the last decade, is earmarked for roads and streets. The latter serves a range of transportation purposes, with the Legislature normally determining the apportionment.

But the fuel-tax receipts that fund roughly half of the motor vehicle account are dropping as people drive less and the use of hybrid and electric cars grows. Plenty of other transportation funding targets are meanwhile clamoring for more money, too, as “Fiscal crisis!” continues to be the battle cry all over Olympia.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 8, 2:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks to CB Hall, some valuable figures emerge:

"The ferry routes, were they roads, would represent about 1.4 percent of the state’s highway network. In the last biennium, however, WSF operations received about 4.5 percent of state funding for highways, while ferry capital needs took another 8 percent."

Now, compare these shares of funding to the percent of vehicle and passenger *trips* served by the ferry routes. You would than notice that a *huge* share of funds are sucked up by these poorly-managed behemoths of the sea while producing very little of the *output* of the state's road system. A very unbalanced picture emerges. The ferries are like a tape-worm.

It might finally be time to trade the fleet in for a cross-Sound bridge between Edmonds and Kingston, so I-5 through traffic can bypass downtown Seattle and Bellevue. It's only been about sixty years since the first idea of a cross-Sound bridge was first considered (although that one would have only connected to Vashon and Southworth, which wouldn't enable the interstate bypass route an Edmonds-Kingston crossing would. Even still, I think it only failed by one vote in the state Senate.)

Posted Wed, Feb 8, 4:03 p.m. Inappropriate

FWIW Seattle's Planning Director claimed at recent Waterfront all-weather-plan forum that foot passengers are now the majority of ferry useage at Colman Dock. That true?

afreeman

Posted Fri, Feb 10, 3:35 p.m. Inappropriate

Probably. But that doesn't mean the auto ferries should be math-balled. Nor does it mean that passenger-ferries on the downtown Seattle-connected routes should be introduced (or in the case of Bremerton re-introduced) and (here's the downside) run in parallel -and thus in competition- with the auto ferries, each of which has *huge* passenger-carrying capacity. (Jumbo ferries inbound from Bainbridge routinely carry 900+ passengers in peak runs, on a ~200-vehicle vessel. At that rate, it's not hard for passengers to outnumber vehicles. These vessels are Coast Guard certified to carry as many as 2,000 passengers.)

But vehicles still need/want to cross the Sound and history has shown that adding cost (e.g. passenger-only ferries layered on top of auto-ferry service) won't guarantee added revenues and riders. It's folly for WSF to compete with itself -- it just guarantees bigger operating losses (and subsidy requirements). It's throwing good money after bad.

Posted Sun, Feb 12, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Ferries have been severely underfunded for decades. Washington State has the largest ferry system in the United States. Why aren't ferries considered Interstate Highways? They serve military bases, they deliver goods, services and people to Interestate Highways.

Posted Mon, Feb 13, 3:29 p.m. Inappropriate

While I personally am in favor of a cross sound bridge or two, it doesnt solve the money problem.
A bridge would be higher capacity, not dependent on weather, and never break down.

But if you look at recent bridges that are similar- ie, longer spans than the Tacoma Narrows, two that come to mind are the Confederation bridge to PEI, and the Denmark/Sweden Bridge.
Initial costs were well over a billion for the Canadian Bridge, in 1997- which means at least double or triple that today.
And the Swedish bridge cost closer to Six Billion.

Where, exactly, do we come up with 5 to 10 Billion for a bridge, when we cant buy a crummy 70 million dollar boat?

Then, there is the unpleasant reality of the tolls- both are in the $40 to $60 range per trip. Thats gonna go over like a big lead balloon. You think ferries are expensive. Bridges cost much more to build, and tolls, even amortized over 30 or more years, will most likely be double ferry fares.

Ries

Posted Tue, Feb 14, 9:12 a.m. Inappropriate

"The ferry routes, were they roads, would represent about 1.4 percent of the state’s highway network." is not a very good way to measure the impact of the Ferry System. It should measure the distance of the land route it replaces. IF this traffic had to drive around, or to the remaining routes, I bet the impact would be three to five TIMES greater.... This accounting system reminds me of the story of the hardware sales person reporting that last year Americans purchased six million drill bits... Did Americans want six million drill bits? NO, they wanted six million HOLES!"

Geography and cost of bridge building pretty much demand a Ferry system, no more or less than an interstate system... The impact of reduction or abandonment would have a huge impact on some regions of our state, and the increased traffic and pollution of doing with less. Pay now or later, the state ferries play a major roll in our economy, and the process of accounting SHOULD include the costs of what would happen WITHOUT it... {Reduction in state tax revenues, increased traffic and time spent, etc.}

Lastly, to the "privatize" it folks, as a fourth generation local, I can still recall the animosity my grandparents held about the systems last years as a private enterprise... the fee hikes, the labor issues, and the whims that the system was subject to. There are very good reasons it became a part of our DOT... Not saying it could not be improved upon, but still far better than it was as private enterprise...

Posted Tue, Feb 14, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

"Geography and cost of bridge building pretty much demand a Ferry system, no more or less than an interstate system.."

Actually, no.

NIMBY social pressures and the failure to plan ahead demand a Ferry system.
From a logistical, weather, maintenance, and cost per trip viewpoint, bridges are much smarter.

But bridges require borrowing money and paying it back- a type of long term benefit thinking that is currently out of vogue. A bridge, amortized over 30 years, is probably a much better investment- at the end of its payback, it would still probably have another 30 years or more of useful life.
Ferries, on the other hand, are very high maintenance, and can be utterly destroyed at any time by bad luck, drunk tug boat captains, unusual weather, and all kinds of other, random, unpredictable stuff.

If a scientific and economic cost/benefit analysis was done, without taking into consideration political issues, we would be building bridges.

Ries

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