A group of travelers aboard the MV Suquamish watch from the sun deck as MV Tokitae passes starboard side on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023, in the waters near Clinton, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A group of travelers aboard the MV Suquamish watch from the sun deck as MV Tokitae passes starboard side on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023, in the waters near Clinton, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Bill seeks to improve ferry reliability with a work group

While the state Department of Transportation isn’t completely on board, Rep. Greg Nance thinks his bill will help ferries long-term.

OLYMPIA — As a lifelong ferry rider, state Rep. Greg Nance, D-Bainbridge Island, said the ferries used to be dependable. Now, reliability is one of the biggest complaints he hears from constituents.

Nance wants to pass a bill to evaluate the current ferry system and seek improvement. Chronic underfunding of the system is the primary reason for unreliability, he said.

House Bill 2497 would create the Washington State Ferries 75 Work Group, a reference to Washington State Ferries’ 75th anniversary in 2026.

In the past year, ferry riders have faced unprecedented cancellations and delays.

From July to September 2023, Washington State Ferries canceled 1,069 of 37,025 scheduled trips, according to agency data.

Nance’s bipartisan bill has local support from Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, Rep. Clyde Shavers, D-Oak Harbor, and Rep. Brandy Donaghy, D-Mill Creek.

The work group would be comprised of state legislators, ferry riders and workers, as well as representatives from the governor’s office and the state Department of Transportation.

If the bill is passed, the group will be tasked with:

• Evaluating the economic impact of ferry disruptions on employment, education, tourism, business and more;

• Assessing dedicated funding sources and exploring areas of improvement; and

• Improving the competitiveness of Washington State Ferries for federal funding.

By 2025, the group would recommend policies for the state to pursue.

In addition, the bill would instruct the state Institute for Public Policy to study the impact of ferry disruptions on the state’s economy.

On Wednesday, only 15 of the state’s 21 vessels were in operation. The boats range in age from 5 to 64 years.

The state needs 26 ferries to ensure reliable service, according to the transportation department’s long-range plan. Despite securing funding for five new ferries, no new vessels are expected until 2028.

In a letter to House Transportation Committee members, Washington State Ferries Assistant Secretary Patty Rubstello shared some concerns about the goals of the bill.

The proposed study of ferry cancellations would focus too much on the negative, rather than “presenting a solutions-oriented focus,” Rubstello wrote. Service has and will continue to improve, she argued.

Nance said it’s important to understand how much money commuters, businesses and the state are losing as ferry disruptions continue.

Rubstello wrote that measures such as evaluating dedicated funding sources and applying for federal funding has already been done. In the past two years, Washington State Ferries received over $140 million in federal grant funding, she noted.

Nance praised this achievement, and said his legislation would add more tools and data to the department, as the system faces a multi-billion-dollar funding gap.

Ferry routes in Snohomish County saw a ridership boost in 2023.

The route serving Edmonds and Kingston is the third-busiest in the state with 3.5 million riders in one year. The Mukilteo-Clinton route was the state’s second-busiest, serving 3.7 million in 2023.

Jenelle Baumbach: 360-352-8623; jenelle.baumbach@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @jenelleclar.

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