WSF Can’t Shake Passenger-Only Ferries

Even after their boats are sold, the agency will be leasing foot ferries for years.

In 2007, the state legislature gave Washington State Ferries a mandate: Sell your passenger-only ferries and get out of that business. Any day now that edict will be fulfilled, as WSF expects to complete the sale of its Chinook and Snohomish vessels to the Bay Area’s Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation District. But even after WSF rids itself of the 350-passenger vessels, it could be years before WSF is able to wean itself from using passenger-only ferries in times of need.

WSF says it has spent $440,000 leasing passenger-only fill-in boats over the past year. After the agency leases passenger-only ferries to fill in on the Port Townsend run for three weeks at the beginning of 2009, when the Steilacoom II (already on loan from Pierce County) goes in for Coast Guard–mandated repairs, WSF will creep closer to spending as much on leasing passenger-only ferries as it would have cost to rehab the boats it’s selling. Combined, the mothballed vessels need around $1.1 million worth of work, according to the “10-Year Passenger Strategy” WSF released in 2005. And the Snohomish has been temporarily in service several times over the past year, including an impromptu route between downtown Seattle and Port Townsend during the holidays.

The nation’s largest ferry system has been shopping for extra boats since it found itself without any backup vessels last year after Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond pulled the four aging steel-electrics from service the day before Thanksgiving. In December, Gov. Chris Gregoire said she hoped three new boats could be delivered within 14 months. Ten months later, WSF is accepting bids in its second attempt at securing a boat builder, and doesn’t believe new boats can be delivered before 2010. Until then, any time a vessel is pulled for unscheduled repairs, WSF will be looking outside its system for passenger-only backup boats. (WSF chief David Moseley has said the agency continues to lease passenger-only vessels because he can’t find any available auto ferries to lease.)

Meanwhile, according to WSF’s legal team, only the governor can stay the sale of the Snohomish and Chinook. Moseley has not asked for the governor to intervene, and Gregoire does not intend to.

“The governor supports WSDOT and Washington State Ferries leadership, and is currently not considering interrupting the legislatively mandated process that is in motion to sell these ferries,” says Gregoire spokeswoman Laura Lockard.

Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo), a member of the House Transportation Committee who voted in favor of House Bill 2273, which mandated the sale of the passenger-only ferries, believes Moseley should ask the governor to allow the boats to remain in the system.

“If I were the governor,” says Appleton, “that’s what I’d do.”