Ferry workers wait for cars to start loading onto the M/V Kitsap on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Ferry workers wait for cars to start loading onto the M/V Kitsap on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Struggling state ferry system finds its way into WA governor’s race

Bob Ferguson backs new diesel ferries if it means getting boats sooner. Dave Reichert said he took the idea from Republicans.

By Jerry Cornfield / Washington State Standard

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 last 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 this 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 the 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.”

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com.

Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Snohomish residents Barbara Bailey, right, and Beth Jarvis sit on a gate atop a levee on Bailey’s property on Monday, May 13, 2024, at Bailey Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Bailey is concerned the expansion of nearby Harvey Field Airport will lead to levee failures during future flood events due to a reduction of space for floodwater to safely go. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Harvey Field seeks to reroute runway in floodplain, faces new pushback

Snohomish farmers and neighbors worry the project will be disruptive and worsen flooding. Ownership advised people to “read the science.”

IAM District 751 machinists join the picket line to support Boeing firefighters during their lockout from the company on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amid lockout, Boeing, union firefighters return to bargaining table

The firefighters and the planemaker held limited negotiations this week: They plan to meet again Monday, but a lockout continues.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Tacoma-based MultiCare’s partnership expands reach in Snohomish County

MultiCare and Overlake say they will “invest significantly to meet the growing health care needs of the Eastside and North Sound communities.”

A BNSF train crosses Grove St/72nd St, NE in Marysville, Washington on March 17, 2022. Marysville recently got funding for design work for an overcrossing at the intersection. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Eighth Street in Marysville closed 8 days for railroad repairs

The road was closed this week between Cedar Avenue and Delta Avenue in Marysville.

A mountain goats in the North Cascades east of Marblemount in August 2017. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)
Ahead of grizzly arrival, wildlife advocates assess past translocations

Moving animals has helped struggling populations to rebound. And advocates point to past examples as evidence that “it’s not ethical to do nothing.”

Julie Timm
Sound Transit’s $375K payout to ex-CEO didn’t buy help

Board members said Julie Timm would give professional advice to them or a future CEO after leaving, but she hasn’t been called upon.

FILE -- An engine on a Boeing 767 jet aircraft, at a Boeing facility in Everett, Wash., March 7, 2012. The Boeing 737 engine that failed on Southwest Flight 1380 is not the only one that has caught the eye of regulators: Engines on Boeing's 787 Dreamliner and 767 have also failed, prompting questions about their design and inspection procedures. (Stuart Isett/The New York Times)
Boeing 767, built in Everett, gets 5-year lifeline from Congress

Boeing would have been forced to end production of the 767 Freighter in 2027 due to new emissions rules if not for the extension.

Snohomish County Jail. (Herald file)
Inmate, 51, dies at Snohomish County Jail

Around 3 p.m., corrections staff called 911 about an inmate, who became unresponsive as firefighters arrived. He died at the scene.

With the Olympic mountains in the background, Boeing's 777x lifts off from Paine Field on its first flight, to Boeing Field in Seattle, on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020 in Everett, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
1 dead, dozens injured after turbulence on Boeing plane

A Singapore Airlines flight from London was diverted to Bangkok, where more than 70 people were being treated for injuries.

Two people fight on the side of I-5 neat Marysville. (Photo provided by WSDOT)
Idaho man identified in fatal trooper shooting on I-5 near Everett

The deceased man was Marvin Arellano, 31, of Nampa, Idaho, according to the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office.

State Sen. Mark Mullet, left, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson, are both running as Democrats for governor in 2024. (Photos provided)
Did Bob Ferguson go too far responding to fellow Fergusons?

Ferguson wanted the secretary of state to redo the ballot. Mark Mullet, a Democratic rival, says such a move would’ve broken the law.

Photo by Gina Shields of GM Photography
Whidbey Island to salute the fallen for Memorial Day

All are invited to honor those who have fallen at three events on Whidbey Island.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.