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Why Washington Ferries Are Such A Headache To Replace

Washington’s ferry fleet is among the largest and oldest in the country. Last week we learned just how vulnerable it is when, at the height of tourist season, one of the ferries broke down.

Buying a new ferry isn’t like buying a new car, however. The next ferry due to hit the docks is the Samish, under construction at the Vigor shipyard on Harbor Island. It should be in service early next year.

Seeing it enter service won’t solve our ferry shortage. Washington’s fleet is getting older, and it’s impossible to predict how many ferries will break down at any one time. But for now, there is no quick fix, because of the way we fund the purchase of ferries in Washington state.

This summer, the Wenatchee developed a leak and was sent for repairs. And it was the Kitsap’s turn to be painted, so it was unusable. And then the lights went out on the ferry Tacoma, setting it adrift on the heavily-traveled Bainbridge Island route. The loss of that ferry caused a cascade of long lines and cancelations from Bainbridge to Sidney, BC.

The situation put ferries staff into crisis mode.

“I just, you know, apologize to our customers that were inconvenienced by Tuesday’s event. It was an unprecedented event,” Captain George Capacci, the interim Ferries chief, said at a news conference last week. “It’s not something that I had planned for.”

Capacci said that if it hadn't been for the surprise failure, there would have been enough ferries.

By law, ferries must be built in the state. The purpose is to create jobs, even though it reduces competition and increases cost. The state also demands that a portion of the Washington workers hired to build our ferries be apprentices. These two rules reduce the number of eligible shipyards.

We obtain money to build ferries one at a time, with lawmakers arguing each one through the state Legislature. We do it that way because the state eliminated the motor vehicles excise tax in 2000. Those revenues used to pay directly for ferries. 

“There was $1.2 billion that had not been collected since the year 2000,” said Susan Hoffman at the state auditor’s office. “And so that money had to be appropriated ship by ship.”

But the lack of steady funding, she said, led to deferring the replacement of old ferries to future years.

Fred Kiga, a vice president at ferry contractor Vigor Industrial, said the way ferries are funded has led to our current shortage.

“This is our marine highway,” Kiga said in an interview on the Samish. “I think you’re seeing the consequence of the deferred maintenance when so many vessels have been going out of service recently.”

The funding situation has led to a crisis. In 2007, Washington was forced to pull some 80-year-old ferries out of service. That meant rushing a new ferry into production.

The transportation department grabbed an off-the-shelf design. But the state auditor found that the state made so many changes while the ferry was being built that it doubled the cost.

So do we not have enough ferries because we don't have money to build them? Or are we not spending the money we do have wisely?

Dave Visneski, the Samish's project manager, said we are missing out on economies of scale. We can't bulk-buy engines and equipment because we don’t commit to getting the state’s full needs met.

“What people have to remember is, we didn’t buy three vessels,” Visneski said. “We bought one vessel. Then we bought one vessel. Then bought one vessel. Because of funding constraints, we weren’t allowed to say we’re building three right away. So we could have saved more."

Visneski gave a reporter a tour of the Samish. Among his points of pride: Portholes cut into a small space to expose a hiding space; a pilot house designed to give a captain a clear view of the bow for docking safety.

The Samish is being built as one of a set of three – reduced from the first projection which called for five ferries. Just as the political process whittled down the number of ferries to be built, others question how many ferries are needed.

Passenger Charlie Waterman drove his car into the lineup at the Edmonds ferry dock on a broiling Friday afternoon. He ate a hotdog while sitting on the trunk of the car. Waterman, who was raised on Bainbridge Island, said he doesn't mind waiting a few hours for a ferry occasionally.

“I’m OK with how it is,” he told KUOW. “I mean there’s a cost to build ferries.”

He said some inconvenience creates an obstacle that protects the rural way of life on the western side of the Sound.

“Because there’s a deterrent to living on the other side that some people won’t put up with,” he said, “so you have more of a country feel when you get to Kingston or to Bainbridge.”

At that moment, a ferries employee gave a signal. Everyone hopped in their cars, revving up for a summer weekend in Washington state.

Carolyn Adolph can be reached at or 206-221-0746.

A timelapse video of Tokitae: