The Washington State Ferry (WSF) system is iconic but it is also an enigma. Long the source of romantic whimsy, it holds a special place in the hearts of Puget Sounders (this author included). Yet, from the beginning, ferry travel was locked into a fiscal struggle to sustain itself and to survive frequent episodes of public scorn.
The fundamental operational problem with the WSF is rooted in the challenging seasonal and hourly surges of ferry travel. Broadly speaking, the world’s ferries overcame maritime distances until a bridge or a tunnel was feasible. Despite requiring greater initial capital outlay, bridges and tunnels have proved to be a much more efficient and cost-effective long term solution.
The fundamental fiscal flaw in Puget Sound Ferry Service lies not in oft-blamed labor and construction costs but rather in the nature of ferry travel itself. To be sure family-wage unionized jobs and well-engineered infrastructure can be considered an aggravating factor (if one finds little value in decent middle-class jobs and well-built boats), but the fundamental issue in the long term is simple: ferries are less cost effective than bridges and tunnels.
The usual technical objection to bridges is that they are not feasible in the deep waters of Puget Sound. But what about these examples from the Japanese Inland Sea? The Great Seto Bridge was built over the period 1978–88 as one of the three routes of the Honshū–Shikoku Bridge Project connecting Honshū and Shikoku islands (two of the five principal Japanese “Home Islands”). The total length is 13.1 kilometers (8.1 miles). Similarly, the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge is one of the world’s longest suspension bridges, located in Akashi Strait between Kobe and Awaji Island. The total and central span lengths are 3.9km and 2km respectively (2.4 and 1.2 miles).
These projects were constructed over waterways with significant depth, high currents, and regular deep-sea marine traffic. By comparison the distance between Seattle’s West Point and Skiff Point on Bainbridge Island (the State Transportation Department’s once-planned mid-Sound bridge crossing) is about three miles. Are there geological and vessel traffic issues? State transportation engineers solved this decades ago with bridge and tunnel/tube technology, which has improved since the initial studies in the 1950s.
Purely from a technical and cost efficiency perspective, we could replace almost every Puget Sound ferry route with a bridge or tunnel. The reasons we do not are political and social. For example, “livability” concerns primarily stopped Vashon Island from becoming “the next Mercer Island.” Breathless objections to the suburbanization of the bucolic environment on Vashon, similar to the pre-bridge Mercer Island, helped defeat a fully fleshed out Vashon bridge project waiting only for Legislative funding.
It was a repudiation of Republican Gov. Art Langlie’s pledge to modernize Puget Sound transportation by replacing, over time, all lower Sound ferries with bridges (after forcing the foundering private-sector boats out of the business in 1951). Two bridges in that plan were constructed to replace the Suquamish/Seattle and Lofall/South Point ferry routes. The Agate Pass bridge opened in 1952, connecting Bainbridge Island with Kitsap, and the Hood Canal Bridge was completed in 1961.
The Hood Canal Bridge linked North Kitsap with the Olympic Peninsula, and it showcased how committed State Transportation planners were to flexing their technological muscles by building the first floating bridge in the world built over tidal salt water. And even though both the Hood Canal Bridge and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (which also replaced a ferry route) suffered spectacular failures there was no serious though to going back to ferry connections.
A third set of bridges from Seattle to Vashon Island and then on to Kitsap was the natural progression of Gov. Langlie’s vision before the region said stop. Despite plans to complete a proposed Bremerton to Bainbridge bridge (which would have replaced the Bremerton-Seattle ferry route), no serious bridge/tunnel proposal has surfaced since. Despite historic frustration with the drawbacks of ferry travel, we decided that we loved the disease (ferries) more than the cure (bridges). Similar to the now-discredited decision of Seattle Transit planners to choose rubber over steel wheels, we have since tried to make it work.
What the region did not do (and has yet to do) is find a way to reliably fund the monumental cost that choice of ferries would represent. Transportation planners quantify the cost differential between ferry and bridge connections by using two key metrics — volume per day, and cost per mile. This is appropriate, as by statute the ferry system is an extension of the highway system, not a mass transit system. A medium to high volume road and bridge system is much, much cheaper than ferry links both regarding construction and operation costs when amortized over, say, a 25-50-year time frame. Capital costs from bonds are retired through user fees, while operating and maintenance costs fit comfortably within the overall cost per mile highway system metric.
In their failure to internalize the systemic, long-term costs of preserving ferry travel, lawmakers wrongly focused on a very visible element that contributed to their overall costs — labor. Ferries are labor intensive compared to roads and bridges (again on a cost per mile basis). But focusing on labor costs, making the workforce the problem, helped drive these workers to aggressively protect themselves. As a local ferry labor leader once quipped, “If they treat us like the problem we will act like the problem.”
And while labor-related service disruptions are long remembered by the public, actual disruptions are quite rare. Ferry workers found that dangling campaign donations in front of lawmakers was much more effective than battling neighbors and commuters by disrupting ferry travel. The ferry lobby thus became a significant political force aligning with user groups and political leaders from both sides of the aisle.
But while labor gets a lion’s share of the attention, other elements also sidetracked political leaders. Ferryboats cost serious coinage. This resulted in a notable, sleazy, insider effort to build less expensive boats in the late 1970s. The resulting Issaquah Class ferries (commonly referred to then as “Lemon Class by their crews) were terribly underbuilt units that sucked considerable resources out of the system in a struggle to make them reliable.
The constant harping on “management problems” brought wrong-headed proposals to “privatize” management. This “solution” was finally embraced by the B.C. Ferry system, with decidedly mixed results. One outcome from the B.C. Ferries experiment and private-sector management is that management costs increased significantly.
Another solution championed by the right is to privatize the entire system. Free marketeers seem to think that there is some “entrepreneurial environment” in public transportation and that “the market” could operate it more efficiently. This was tried earlier and failed. It didn’t fail because it was “regulated to death.” True, the State did eventually step in to regulate the monopolized system that the unregulated free market had produced when Blackball Transport bought out its only serious competitor, Kitsap Transport, in 1935.
When the State finally decided to stop the profiteering, management looked to the costs of labor to wring a margin out of a system. Labor pushed back, forming the powerful labor organizations that are with us today. World War II helped ease the economics, but when the war subsidies ended the struggles the cost-capped system had with labor escalated and ferry travel became very unreliable. At that point, the State had no choice but to take over.
Once the “replace them with a bridge” strategy failed, and the system was firmly in the public domain, the issue of cost efficiency remained. The aggressive goal of maintaining a 70- 80 percent fare-box return rate on operating costs (capital costs were 100 percent subsidized), had limited effect as “elasticity” discourages travel and fare collections. In addition, regressive user fees affected lower-income users of the ferry. Politically some on the east side of the state insisted that if residents choose to reside on our western peninsulas and islands and choose to oppose bridge construction then such residents can bloody well pay for the privilege, regressive pricing be damned.
The ferry system once seemed to have found a way out of the dilemma with the rise of the progressive Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (the more expensive your car the more you pay for your car tabs), but political leaders and policy makers rode that horse into the ground. Aggressively leveraging the MVET helped fuel Tim Eyman’s taxpayer revolt in the 1990s, thus negating that funding method from the mix. It was back to fighting the road builders for gas-tax money.
Which is where the system remains today, and where it will remain in the future.
To be clear, I am not advocating replacing ferries with bridges. As a third generation native of the western peninsulas (and former ferry worker), I cherish my earliest childhood memories of ferry travel. Ferries are as much a part of my family’s cultural history as the dank, grey February weather. The stark reality, though, is our communities made decisions years ago that we now struggle to live with. With user fees maxed out and subsidy sources static, there is no practical remedy to the current situation. Unless some magical political leader devises a way to infuse the system with some sort of dedicated funding, the system will continue to try gamely to punch above its weight. Measured by that dismal metric, the system actually does a pretty good job of providing safe and reliable service.