Troubles Plague Washington's Ferry System
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Commuters in this country like to complain about potholes that are never fixed and bridge construction work that's behind schedule, but we don't often hear about the plight of ferries.
More than 30 states have ferry systems, many of them aging. This is especially true in Washington state, home to the nation's largest ferry fleet. Reporter Chana Joffe-Walt reports.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: It's not that it's startling, it's just that it happens really suddenly. You're just standing there by the Bainbridge Island ferry dock. 7:00 a.m., it's quiet, still kind of dark, and then 7:02, the buses arrived.
Commuters surge out the doors and get straight to their pre-ferry ritual: coffee from Carol(ph)…
Ms. CAROL (Coffee Vendor): What kind of coffee for you?
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).
JOFFE-WALT: …the paper from Andrea(ph)…
Ms. ANDREA (Newspaper Vendor): Good morning. Have a nice day.
JOFFE-WALT: And then down the long corridor into the warm, bright belly of a green and white ferry.
Louisa Barrish(ph) has been part of this hushed morning procession for 18 years. The seagulls escort the ferry across Puget Sound to Seattle.
Ms. LOUISA BARRISH (Ferry Commuter, Washington): On a beautiful sunny day when the sun is rising over Seattle and you see the sun reflecting off the Olympics, and they're all pink and purple and beautiful and snow-capped, and then you see some orcas jumping in and out of the water, and every - the captain announces that there are some orcas off the left side of the boat, and everybody goes rushing over to look at them, it's kind of an amazing commute.
JOFFE-WALT: Ferry commuters are bold, proud, smug even when it comes to their boats. They really see it as their maritime highway. Without the ferry, Bainbridge Island is just an island - isolated, not a 30-minute commute to Seattle.
But that love for their boats doesn't mean riders don't kvetch about the people in charge of their fleet. They do - lately a lot. The fares are way too high, the schedule is all messed up. Long-time commuter Dave Garhard(ph) says faith in the system is slowly depleting.
Mr. DAVE GARHARD (Ferry Commuter, Washington): The number and quality of services on the ferry have gone down. You know, the general repair, the sense of how well the infrastructure is being managed is less quality now.
JOFFE-WALT: Twenty-four-million people ride Washington state ferries every year to islands, cities, a peninsula and to Canada. Truckers get their stuff around on ferries. For some kids, the ferry is the school bus every morning, and for thousands of tourists, the rides are camera candy.
Unidentified Announcer: Your attention please. We are now arriving at our destination. All passengers must disembark the vessel upon arrival.
JOFFE-WALT: But here's the thing. These green-and-white gliding icons are old. The boats break down, they rust, get cancelled or switched around. And last fall, the Department of Transportation pulled four boats from service all at once. Their steel hulls were cracked. The boats were 80 years old, 8-0.
They'd been sailing to Port Townsend, a Victorian tourist town where no ferries meant lost revenue for business owners like Marilyn Staples(ph).
Ms. MARILYN STAPLES (Business Owner, Port Townsend, Washington): Our business just plummeted. We really need those visitors that come on the ferries.
JOFFE-WALT: Staples says the community's been trying to draw attention to the aging boats for years, but no one made any plans for the inevitable.
Ms. STAPLES: When a bridge falls down, it's much more dramatic. The benign neglect that they have given to the ferry system has really been a disgrace. They should be ashamed.
JOFFE-WALT: Washington state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond is up-front. We messed up, she says. We've known about the aging fleet. The problem has been and continues to be money. Almost 10 years ago, Washington state voters repealed a vehicle registration tax. It used to pay for a quarter of the ferries' operating budget and almost 40 percent of the capital costs.
It's been years, and it's still unclear how the state can make up for that loss. Fares have already been increased seven times, and Washington state has no income tax.
Ms. PAULA HAMMOND (Secretary, Washington State Department of Transportation): We are really thin. We're operating on a very thin margin of having enough vessels to go around.
JOFFE-WALT: In fact, there's not a spare. If one breaks down now, there's no backup. So the state legislature recently approved extra funds to build six new boats that'll hopefully replenish the fleet and keep things running for now. Beyond that, the state's still unsure how to sustain its service into the future. They've got to make up for a projected gap of at least $368 million over the next 16 years.
Ms. HAMMOND: The legislature is working hard with the communities and with the department to develop a long-term financial plan so that we don't run into this problem again, that we have a vessel replacement ongoing strategy that is affordable and fundable.
JOFFE-WALT: Heading up that effort is David Mosley, a brand-new ferries chief, a man with no maritime experience but dedicated to finding a way, some way, to keep 28 boats afloat. It's a task he calls the ultimate career challenge.
For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.