Ferry Tales: How the System Broke, Why It’s so Hard to Fix


If Washington residents were polled on their favorite service of Washington State government, odds are that many would pick Washington State Ferries.  

Since 1951, those green and white boats have supported thriving island and Olympic Peninsula economies and delivered millions of tourists to scenic destinations. No out-of-town visit would be complete without a ferry ride. 

But these are tough times for the nation’s largest ferry system, which carried 8.8 million passengers (about half the population of New York state) and 8.6 million vehicles in 2022. As the summer begins, however, ferry riders are bracing themselves for another season of sharply curtailed sailing schedules and long delays brought about by a shortage of vessels and trained crew.  

Just Monday, WSF announced the Suquamish will be pulled from the Edmonds-Kingston route next week for required routine maintenance, and replaced with the Kitsap, carrying 20 fewer cars.  Then the following week the larger Puyallup will replace the Kitsap – just an example of the juggling acts the system performs to keep up service on busy routes.    

None of these problems was a surprise to WSF or the Legislature, which controls the system’s purse strings.  Vessels in operation 20 hours a day will eventually break down beyond repair, and crew members will grow old and retire.  

Gov. Jay Inslee, himself a Bainbridge Island resident, has come under fire for being slow to address the ferry crisis. The three-term governor “bears the greatest responsibility for the disrepair of its network of marine highways,” the Seattle Times editorialized in November. 

But signs of a looming crisis were obvious well before Inslee took office 12 years ago. Ferry funding fell victim to shifting legislative priorities. A Tim Eyman 1999 state initiative blew a billion-dollar hole in transportation funding, and contracting stumbles worsened the situation.  

“It’s a perfect storm that has been brewing for some time,” said State Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, whose 40th District includes the San Juan Islands, where communities are hard-hit by the ferry disruptions. 

Spurred by system breakdowns, the Legislature has pumped money from Move Ahead Washington, federal aid, and the Climate Commitment Act (CCA) into ferry improvements to rebuild the fleet, which rank as some of Puget Sound’s biggest diesel polluters. Three ferries are being upgraded to hybrid-electric power, and the state hopes to sign deals soon to build five new hybrid-electric vessels, one of Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature environmental initiatives.  

But they will not come overnight. The first new boats are scheduled to be delivered in 2028.   

Lawmakers also approved more money to recruit and speed up the training of new crew members, another hurdle. The state acknowledges the system is perhaps a year away from having enough crews to stabilize schedules.  

Delivery of those five new boats, however, is only a stop-gap measure. With vessels as old as 60 years, the system needs a steady stream of new ferries well into the future. But without a dedicated funding source, the state has no clear path to paying for new vessels and maintaining its existing fleet. 

In 2015, WSF had 24 vessels operating on its 10 routes. Today the fleet is down to 21 vessels, some of which are old and prone to breakdowns, with no spare boats available. Service was reduced across the system, and the sailing to Sydney, BC was suspended. To serve all its routes adequately, WSF needs 26 boats. 

“We are paying the price of decisions made a long time ago,” said Daniel Walkup, a Bremerton resident who commutes to a job on Seattle’s waterfront. “I don’t know why they didn’t anticipate these problems years ago,” said Walkup, a member of a WSF advisory panel.  

The appointment of Steve Nevey as WSF chief in March has infused a new optimism among lawmakers and ferry communities.  The UK native has been at sea since high school, with broad experience in commercial vessels and cruise ships, as well as two years as WSF operations manager. 

He acknowledges the state has let down the communities dependent on reliable ferry service. “I have a lot of empathy for people who can’t get their boat or their boat is late.  We’re doing all we can,” said Nevey. Give us another year, he said. 

“Staffing and boats are our biggest challenges, but staffing will be the easiest to solve,” he said.  “By this time next year, there will be a lot less crew cancellation.  Last year, we canceled hundreds of sailings.  Now we are canceling tens of sailings that are crew related.’’ 

“The improvements are not coming fast enough,” says one Bainbridge Island lawmaker, along with candidates for governor of both parties. “We are on the right track, but we have to move faster,” said state Rep. Greg Nance, a newly appointed 23rd District legislator and a Bainbridge Island native.  He advocates leasing passenger-only small ferries from other systems to serve smaller routes. He also wants to step up recruitment of mariners from the Navy.  “In the short term, we have to make compromises.  It’s just a reflection of the realities we face,” says Nance. 

Washington State Ferry Spokane sailing from Edmonds to Kingston (Walter Siegmund)

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Democratic candidate for governor, as well as the Republican favorite, Dave Reichert, both criticized the state’s plans as too slow. Ferguson said he would “immediately’’ issue requests to build two new vessels, potentially traditional diesel-powered ferries, as well as three hybrid-electric craft, along with other steps to speed up crew hiring. 

Reichert blamed Inslee for the “mismanaged nightmare that happened on your watch.’’  He said the state should “quickly” acquire new diesel-powered ferries to meet today’s needs and delay building the hybrid vessels. 

The ferry system lost its main source of capital-construction with voter approval of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 in 1999, which promised a return to $30 car-license tabs by eliminating the state’s Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.   

Although the initiative was struck down by the courts, the Legislature and then-Gov. Gary Locke did agree to eliminate the unpopular MVET, which represented a loss of more than $1 billion in tax revenue in the first two years. In one stroke, the ferry system lost dedicated funding for its capital-construction program and operating subsidies. 

For more than two decades, a seemingly endless series of funding and vessel problems have dogged the system. Senior crew members sounded the alarm about pending retirements and deferred maintenance, but leadership was slow to act on those warnings, trying to hold down labor costs.  

David Moseley took over the system in 2008 faced with the loss of four Steel Electric boats, which were corroded beyond repair, rocky relations with ferry communities, and no clear path for replacement vessels. Moseley had no maritime background but had served years in local-government management.  

During his six years with WSF, three new 64-car ferries were built to replace the Steel Electrics. Three new ferries, the Olympic class, were funded and under construction.  “I told the Legislature that pace needed to continue.  We needed a new boat every 18 months,’’ Moseley  said.  That warning was not heeded, and no boats have been built since 2016. 

Meanwhile, the problems with graying crews were accelerating. Retirements and departures during the COVID pandemic were depleting the ranks of trained deckhands, engineers, and masters essential to keeping the system running on time. The combination of too few boats and crew shortages forced the system to reduce sailings on its routes under a Service Contingency Plan.   

Across most maritime, fishing, and industrial fields, there is an acute shortage of trained and experienced young people able to fill jobs. High schools put little energy into skills-training classes, instead focusing on science and technical careers. To help address the needs, the Port of Seattle and other organizations created Aviation and Maritime high schools. Coast Guard regulations for skilled crew members require lengthy training and service for a minimum number of hours at sea.    

Different strategies were proposed without success to bolster recruitment.  “We knew they [critical crew shortages] were coming, but we were not in agreement on how to do it,’’ said Moseley, the former WSF chief. 

“It takes years to move people into those licensed deck positions,’’ said John Vezina, WSF’s Director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations. The BC Ferries system is plagued by a similar shortage of crew. 

For deck crew, progressing from a new hire to an Able-Bodied Sailor requires extensive classroom work and 540 days of sailing time. Under their union contract, pay for a 40-hour week is about $1,500 plus overtime.  To move up to Quartermaster requires more testing, training, Coast Guard licensing, and another 540 days at sea. To qualify as a mate requires six weeks of study and testing. Another year of sea time is needed to qualify as a master.  The most senior Staff Master position is paid about $3,300 a week. 

Below decks, moving from a new hire as a wiper (about $1,100 a week), to oiler, to assistant engineer, and finally chief engineer requires extensive classroom work, testing, licensing, and nine to 12 years of shipboard experience.  Pay for that top post is about $3,000 a week.  In the private sector, such as oil exploration, a chief engineer can command three times the wages paid by WSF. 

Because of the seasonal fluctuations of vessel operations, many trainees could not get the steady work needed to achieve the required minimum hours. Many dropped out to find other employment. 

To help build a pipeline of trainees – and support them as they learn the trades – WSF created a ferries apprenticeship program with the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITAGS). This program is designed to graduate licensed deck officers in two years. Critically, scholarships pay enrollees $45,000 a year during training, plus a stipend while at sea. 

After the loss of motor-vehicle tax money for new vessels, the Legislature has been slow to find other revenue sources to replace the aging boats. Why has it taken so long? 

Legislators acknowledge other priorities commanded the Legislature’s attention, such as education funding, and economic downturns that reduced tax revenues.  The relatively small ferry communities are not always united and are weaker politically than other regions in competing for scarce transportation money.   

Further, the state’s own rules made building the vessels more expensive. Until a recent policy change, only Washington shipyards were eligible to bid on state ferries, meaning Vigor Marine (formerly Todd) in Seattle controlled most of the work. Federal funding rules require the vessels be built in the U.S; by contrast, the BC ferry system can buy from anywhere in the world. 

Vigor is now working to convert the agency’s three largest ferries – the Wenatchee, Tacoma. and Puyallup — to hybrid electric power. 

In 2019, the state announced with great fanfare a deal with Vigor to build five new hybrid-electric ferries. The proposed contract, however, required Vigor to assume the risk of designing the new vessels. But when Vigor presented an offer for the new ships, the cost was $417 million, double the engineer’s estimate. Vigor blamed the higher costs on assuming the risk of the design. 

State officials express confidence in the hybrid-electric technology, which today powers ferries in Europe, British Columbia, and one Kitsap Transit vessel. Even so, the technology presents some daunting technical challenges, including the need to upgrade electrical power to terminal docks and to design safe and reliable shore-power connections. 

By the end of May, the state will soon issue invitations to bid for the five new hybrid vessels, this time with the state responsible for design. And for the first time, non-Washington shipyards can compete to build the vessels, although Puget Sound builders get a leg up with a 13 percent credit. With more yards able to bid, the state hopes that construction can occur in multiple locations, with the first two new boats in service in 2028 and three more by 2030.  

But as delays pile up in getting new construction underway, critics are calling for the state to reconsider its commitment to build only hybrid-electric ferries. 

Candidate Ferguson, striving to separate himself from Inslee’s record in the governor’s race, is calling for issuing separate requests for proposals: one for vessels delivered “as soon as possible,’’ potentially diesel-powered, along with another for hybrid-electric boats. He also called for bringing in passenger-only ferries and enacting other reforms. Others have suggested that designs for state ferries that were not built could be pulled off the shelf and used for new boats. Nance, the Bainbridge Island lawmaker, said the state should look at acquiring used ferries from other services as a temporary measure. 

The state replied that revising the vessel bidding now would add up to two years of delay in building new vessels and require a brand-new legislative authorization. The older designs were for engine makers no longer in business, said Nevey, and the climate-change funding can only be used for U.S.-built hybrid boats.  “All of those things mean we’d be stuck in a quagmire just to get the diesel boats,’’ Nevey said. Further, the state looked around the world for suitable short-term vessels but could find none that met state standards. 

One looming question: Will there be qualified U.S. shipyards ready to bid on state ferries? The answer is uncertain due to the decades-long decline of American shipbuilding, Nevey acknowledged.  

Nevey said he is “80 percent confident” the 2028 schedule can be achieved. “The Navy’s having massive challenges with building ships, and the Coast Guard.  I can’t guarantee we are not going to run into those challenges,” he warned. “But I’m confident we’ll have Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C to keep the process moving forward.” 

Rank and file crew members seem encouraged by the new commitment of money for vessels and crew.  “They are doing everything they can,’’ said Scott Freiboth, a ferry captain and 31-year veteran, praising the efforts to market job opportunities in high schools, and to pay trainees on the job. “They definitely are pulling out all the stops.” 

Lovelett, the Anacortes state senator, endorses the WSF’s overall efforts to address vessel and crew shortages.  Lovelett advises that the state should stay on course to build hybrid boats, agreeing that buying diesel vessels would delay delivery and go back on the state’s climate-protection pledge, she said.  

“I just don’t think that’s reality,’’ said Lovelett, leader of the Legislature’s ferry caucus.  “To stop and start the design again is not going to realistically improve the time frame.” At the same time, Lovelett advocates working with ferry communities to develop short-term passenger ferry options.   

Nance, the Bainbridge Island lawmaker, praises Nevey, the new WSF chief. “He’s on the right track,” Nance said, but adds the system “needs a dose of private sector thinking” in delivering service.  

If there is a lesson in the past 20 years of ferry problems, it is that a stable funding source is essential to keep vessels maintained and regularly replaced, and to ensure adequate crew to run them safely and on time. Today, ferry farebox revenues pay for a much bigger share of operations than does the average bus system. 

But it took many years – and a lot of pain for ferry users – until the Legislature and Inslee stepped up with solutions to the immediate vessel and crewing problems.  

But crucially lawmakers must now solve the even more expensive challenges of putting the system on a stable financial footing, or otherwise risk running the system aground again in the future. 

Discussions are underway now on funding options for debate in the 2025 legislative session, but raising taxes is never easy to achieve, particularly when many legislators do not have ferries in their districts. 

“My message continues to be that once we have built those five ferries, we have to fund a new boat every biennium,’’ said Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor, vice chair of the House Transportation Committee. The price tag will be roughly $300 million apiece. 

Locking a construction plan into the state budget is essential to giving Washington shipbuilders the ability to build up a stable workforce and compete successfully for new boats.  “The problem is a lack of a consistent build schedule,” Paul said. 

Looming over the ferry-funding questions are the larger challenges of building a sustainable statewide transportation budget. Gas-tax revenue is declining, and highway construction costs are soaring.  Some form of road-user charges will probably be on the table in the coming session but will likely stir considerable opposition. It is not clear where the current candidates for governor stand on road-user charges.  

Paul does not lay the blame for the ferry crisis entirely at Inslee’s feet, even as he admits to frustration with the delays in issuing bid invitations for the new boats.  “We (the Legislature and governor) have kind of lurched from crisis to crisis,” he said. 

Ferry-district legislators say the state can no longer afford to short-change the system, which is critical to the economies of island communities and brings in millions of tourist dollars for the state.  

Lovelett, the Anacortes lawmaker, has hopes the state can bring stability to the ferry system.  “If we want the solutions to be durable, we have to figure out something for the long term,’’ she said. 

Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt
Mike Merritt is a former writer and editor for local newspapers. He recently retired as senior executive policy advisor for the Port of Seattle.


  1. Solid article. Behind this story lies a question: why do Americans have a disdain for long term planning? Many readers, I suspect, have some familiarity with a decades old essay entitled The Art of Muddling Through by Lindbloom. All that is required by the populace is this years’ needs matched by this years’ budget. Nothing more. The ferry system is a perfect example of muddling through until the floor of Puget Sound is littered with carcasses.

  2. Mike Merritt’s piece is a pretty good historical overview of the collapse of the state’s ferry system, but it lacks both any measures of accountability nor any ideas for how to reverse, or just slow, the collapse. I would like to offer some of each.

    I write as a 20+ year resident of San Juan County, the only county dependent on ferries for its connection to the state’s highways. I also was chair of the county’s Ferry Advisory Committee for four years, beginning about the time the state legislature threw out the motor-vehicle excise tax. This was a rare form of progressive taxation for Washington supposedly based on the value of a vehicle. The problem was the state got greedy and valued vehicles for tax purposes well beyond vehicles’ resale value. The State Supreme Court threw out the tax, which had been passed as an initiative, but legislators voted to throw it out anyway, despite knowing the state couldn’t have a viable transportation infrastructure without it.

    Hardest hit was the ferry system, to the tune of what became about a billion dollars a year. The political constituency for ferries, as Merritt notes, always has been relatively small when transportation dollars are divvied up. Ferry users saw rates take huge jumps to make up for the loss of operating funds while the legislature sat on its hands.

    One reason the legislature failed to respond was because it had no trust in the system’s management. And for good reason. The first ferry boss hired around the time of the loss of dedicated funding was a rancher from Pendleton, Oregon. He was followed by others with no experience running a ferry system, or managing such a large, encrusted organization. The last one managed state highway tolling, something she enjoyed so much she continued to participate in highway-tolling conferences even as head of WSF.

    So, the legislature sat on its hands. So did most ferry-community politicians, including in San Juan County, and most especially Gov. Inslee who, over the last 12 years of this slow sinking, provided absolutely no leadership in the legislature or within his own executive administration. He chose to duck any responsibility by passing the buck to his head of the state Department of Transportation (DOT, but more accurately known as the highway department), who hired and oversaw these ferry bosses.

    Gov. Inslee only got involved when he ran for president and wanted credibilty as a “green” leader by mandating any new ferry had to be hybrid electric. That halted an ongoing contract with Vigor to build more very badly needed diesel ferries and plunged DOT (and, later, Vigor) into a whole new world of propulsion and design. That led to years of delays and ended when the price of the new technology was much higher that WSF had anticipated.

    I think it’s fair to say, as Merritt reports, that we are where we are, that changing course again to known technology won’t speed up the process. Next will be prices for hybrid ferries much higher than anticipated by WSF, which will mean fewer new ferries and a longer time before service is stabilized. Old ferries just get older and less reliable. Today, one of the three ferries serving the San Juan Islands from Anacortes is broken down. A different one was broken down last week. Sailings continue to be cancelled for insufficient crew. There is no realistic hope that this will get better.

    Two things should happen in the next year. The legislature should pass a motor-vehicle excise tax with controls to prevent the state from over-stating values. It’s a mildly progressive tax — if you have a more expensive car, you pay a larger tax — and easy to administer. Done right, it would go a long way to helping ferries and highways.

    Second, have the head of WSF must report directly to the governor. In this crisis situation, there shouldn’t be any layers between an elected leader and the person running such critical operation. And WSF obviously needs a powerful advocate with the legislature to pull out of this collapse. The buck has to stop quickly at an elected’s desk. We’ve seen enough enough to know what happens otherwise.

    • Thanks, Alex. There is plenty of blame to go around. The important thing now is to ensure strong leadership, transparency in operations and progress toward a stable funding mechanism.

  3. A quagmire, to be sure, and no real end in sight. One word: Tunnels. Until we see a credible cost-benefits study on how cross-sound tunnels (and/or bridges) would compare to ferries in cost, reliability and longevity, this whole issue is just going to make me cranky. I love a ferry ride as much as the next guy, and I think watching them cruise across the water is a delightful and iconic local treat, but let’s get serious about our infrastructure. The engineering and design advances for tunnels and bridges in recent decades are leagues ahead of any comparable advances in ferry system operation, efficiency or reliability. Show us the math.

  4. the ferry system and the shameful conditions along our State roadways are
    both comprehensible evidence of the failure of the Governor’s office.
    Budget deficits and climate issues are on the top of the list, but these are abstract issues to most voters and taxpayers.

  5. Granted the system is a mess. But those who choose to live on islands dependent upon ancient boats to commute to work or whatever mainland activity they are hankering for have made the choice to live on an island (or peninsula) fully knowing the situation. It’s not any cheaper living there. If ferry service is a problem then don’t live somewhere where you need it. Why should the rest of us who live where there are actual roads be caught in the quagmire of how to pay for more and more expensive boats and crews and docks and infrastructure so those enjoying the island life can zip back to the mainland whenever they wish? Let’s get real here. Cut the service way down to where it can pay for itself with fares. Take some lottery money away from the schools, which are another abject failure, and use it to fund training for crew. Build more small passenger ferries. Think outside the box.

    • This tired old line again? I suggest reading RCW 47.06.140, which pretty unequivocally defines the ferry system as part of, and integral to, the state highway system, and a “service of statewide significance.” In other words, we help pay for your highways to serve where you live and work, so you, likewise, help pay for our ferries. Don’t expect that to change.

      I appreciate this discussion, and the article that prompted it. But the author omitted the name of the chief culprit, without whose efforts WSF wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today.

      I don’t mean Tim Eyman either. I mean Gary Locke, the Gutless Governor, who after the WA Supreme Court declared Eyman’s I-695 unconstitutional, strongarmed the Legislature into passing it into law anyway, apparently because he was too chickens**t to deny the angry rednecks the $30 car tabs that the grifter Eyman had promised them. To be fair, Frank Chopp deserves his share of the blame too.

      As others have pointed out, the gutting of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax threw WSF into its downward spiral. To make up the loss of funding, passenger rates spiraled upward, to the point that today, ferry commuters and occasional travelers are paying, in tolls, the highest percentage of farebox recovery of any transit mode in the state.

      Plenty of us ferry users made the point at the time that OK, maybe the evaluations the MVET was based on were out of whack and needed to be adjusted, but as I remember it, Locke insisted they take a meat ax to the entire MVET framework. I for one have neither forgotten nor forgiven.

      We need to restore the MVET to its pre-2000 status, adjusted for more accurate valuations, and made steeply graduated to favor lighter vehicle weight, higher mileage, and fewer emissions, but also, if you can pay $70K for a new Tesla, you shouldn’t skate from paying a higher rate.

      DOL and DOR can calculate most of the data to evaluate the tax at point of sale. It can all be done in-house. It’s not that difficult to figure out, no matter how many legislators’ eyes glaze over when I lay it out for them.

  6. One correction: Nevey did not say the “engine maker” is out of business. He only echoed that the *distributor* that WSF used many years ago is gone. The engines themselves (EMD) are still readily available. This has been a very carefully worded excuse for not reusing the existing Olympic Class (OC) design — something we already paid for. Admittedly the four OC boats aren’t great — sluggish, fuel hogs, and 100% diesel (not even diesel-electric like the Jumbos and others), but at least the plans are 100% Coast Guard and every other regulatory body-approved and WSF owns the design.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments Policy

Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published. All comments are reviewed before being published. Comments are the opinions of their contributors and not those of Post alley or its editors.