Comment: Work under way to rebuild reliable ferry system

There are efforts ongoing in the short- and long-term, but there’s a threat in an initiative this fall.

By Marko Liias / For The Herald

Like so many others who grew up here, I have vivid childhood memories of our iconic ferries. My family couldn’t afford expensive vacations, so we found joy in exploring destinations close to home.

The familiar white and green ferry fleet symbolizes the connections that tie our state together across the Salish Sea. But we also have to be honest with ourselves: Washington’s ferries are in trouble. Aging vessels and staffing shortages have forced Washington State Ferries to reduce service along many routes, with severe consequences for those who rely on them.

When I took over as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee in 2022, I knew that we had to get serious about fixing our ferries. And we got to work, passing a package of transportation investments called Move Ahead Washington. This package includes funding to acquire five new ferries, investments in better pay for ferry workers, and new workforce pathways to make sure we recruit new workers and help them skill up from entry level to the captain’s chair.

We also made sure that kids ride free on ferries, so the next generation of families can create memories and explore our state; just like my family did. And with the cost of living going up, cutting fares for kids means a little more money for families to spend on other needs.

Just a year after passing these new investments, it became clear that we needed to shake up how we construct new vessels and consider proposals from all over the country, instead of just looking here in Washington. This was a tough choice, as we love our local maritime industry and the jobs it provides, but we also need new vessels as quickly as possible.

These are some big changes that will make our ferries better in the long run. But these future promises do little to alleviate present frustrations. So when the legislative session began this year, I asked our local ferry communities to share their ideas for immediate fixes we could implement now. Many of you reached out with solutions that will help make things better while we work toward our longer-term goals.

This week, we unveiled a bipartisan Senate transportation budget proposal that includes what we heard. We fund expanded passenger service where it’s available, to provide a backup when sailings are canceled. And in the San Juan Islands, where there isn’t passenger service now, we support the community recommendation to pursue this backup option. We also fund better dispatch service, more crew shuttles and more relief workers for sailings that are at risk of being canceled. And we beef up back-end services like emergency preparedness, service planning and human resources, so our ferry system has more support to deal with the unexpected crises that we have seen these last few years.

Unfortunately, even as we are making investments to fix our ferries, we face a serious threat from Initiative 2117. Democrats did not pass this initiative because it would cut more than a billion dollars from our ferries. It would cancel funding for our new vessels, cripple our efforts to hire and train new ferry workers, and jeopardize everything we are doing to make sure our ferries are healthy and strong. There will be a lot of public debate about this initiative, and I hope everyone considers the implications for our ferry communities.

When we think about what defines our state — our apples, our mountains, our evergreen trees — our ferries are one of the things people remember about us. These ships are also critical lifelines for the communities along Puget Sound. We have an obligation to our neighbors to do everything we can today, and tomorrow, to restore the pride and honor of our iconic Washington State Ferries.

State Sen. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, is the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and represents the 21st Legislative District.

Clarification Wording in the above commentary was changed by the author to clarify Democrats’ opposition to Initiative 2117 if adopted by voters.

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