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Anacortes Now – Washington’s ferry system heads for calmer waters

June 18, 2024

5 minutes reading time

by Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard

Washington State Ferries officials recognize that their navigation of the nation’s largest public ferry system frustrates those who depend on it most.

Passengers want a stable service at the level they had before the pandemic, but this is not possible due to a lack of boats and staff, which continues to lead to delays and cancellations of trips.

But at a town hall meeting on Monday afternoon, the agency’s leadership tried to give the 200 participants hope that the collective ship was slowly moving in a better direction.

More new employees are being hired than are retiring or leaving the company, and a process has finally been initiated to build five new hybrid-electric ships.

“One year ago we were in crisis. Now we are recovering,” said Steve Nevey, the new deputy secretary for Washington State Ferries. “None of the challenges we face are easy. It will take time to get the system where it needs to be.”

He and a half-dozen other agency executives spent most of Monday afternoon’s two-hour public meeting answering questions on topics ranging from the construction of those hybrid-electric ferries to drivers cutting in line to efforts to restore service on all routes.

A second virtual public hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m. You can register here or watch on TVW.

One positive sign is that the number of cancellations has fallen from 1,128 in the first quarter of 2023 to 493 in the same period this year. Two weeks ago, there was a full week without a single departure canceled due to lack of crew, something that hasn’t happened in months, ferry officials said.

“I know it doesn’t feel like it, but help is on the way,” said John Vezina, director of planning, customer and government relations.

The ferry system’s fleet includes 21 car carriers, 15 of which are currently operating on a reduced schedule. Five older vessels are currently undergoing maintenance and one is in dry dock to be converted to hybrid electric propulsion.

These five new hybrid electric boats are critical. Last month, the agency began searching for potential manufacturers as Washington will begin accepting bids from shipyards across the country for the first time in more than half a century.

As planned, bids will be submitted in January and one or more contracts will be awarded in February 2025. In order to deliver the boats faster, the state is willing to split the contract between two suppliers with the lowest bid, so that two shipyards can start work at the same time.

This means that two ships could be delivered as early as 2028 – still a full decade since the state last added new ferries to its fleet. These first two ferries will serve the Clinton/Mukilteo and Seattle/Bremerton routes.

Why these routes? They are shorter and have better charging infrastructure and access to necessary utilities, officials said during Monday’s meeting.

As for the cost, Matt von Ruden, who oversees the ferry electrification program, said it is estimated that it will take between $230 million and $275 million to build each boat, “but the market will determine the cost.” Lawmakers have allocated $1.3 billion for the purchase.

Since a competitive bidding process is to be expected, he is confident that the final price offer “will be the best price”.

Some participants in the virtual meeting asked if it would be faster to build diesel-powered ferries like those on the water today. The simple answer is no, Nevey said.

“We don’t have a blueprint right now. We would have to start the blueprint from the beginning,” he said. Lawmakers would have to change the law – the state ferry system operates under a policy to electrify its fleet – and provide funding, he said.

“It’s not faster. Hybrid electric is the fastest way to get new ferries,” he said.

One of the first topics raised was what more can be done to curb criminal jump-starting on ferries, a traffic violation punishable by a fine of $139.

However, this only applies if a police officer notices it. Ferry employees are not authorized to issue tickets, Vezina said.

“We all know because we’ve all seen it. We’re limited in what we can do by the laws of the state,” Vezina said. Hopefully those who follow the rules can take a deep breath when it happens and “accept that there are people who are going to do this.”

Republished with permission. Read the original article.

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