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Your ferry ran late to save the planet

MV Puyallup is one of the biggest ferries in the fleet
KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter
MV Puyallup is one of the biggest ferries in the fleet.

Ferries have been running a few minutes behind, and listener Nick Wilson wanted to know what was up.

Turns out ferries can reduce CO2 emissions significantly by laying off the throttle just a bit. Like, equivalent to taking more than 1,200 cars off the road.

Knowing this, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a fuel saving order.

Fuel savings has to do with how boats work. Scott Freiboth, who captains the Seattle to Bainbridge run, said the ferry is designed in such a way that it's most efficient around 18 knots. 

"Anything beyond that, and it's like pushing a brick through a pinhole,” Freiboth said. “It just doesn't want to go any faster. So it takes a lot of force to get just a little bit more speed.” 

Previously, when the boat was running late, captains sped up to stay on track. The Bainbridge boat could go up to 21 ½ knots. But now captains have been told to lay off the gas to save fuel. 

Freiboth said the new rule could make it harder to stay on schedule. “There's nothing we can do to make up the time, and our schedule here is already very tight," he said.

But Freiboth also supports the plan because he said it would cost passengers very little time – a few minutes max on the Bainbridge run – and still save a lot of fuel.  

Cotty Fay, chief naval architect for Washington Ferries, put it this way: "It's like your car. If you went 90 miles an hour everywhere, your car would burn a lot more fuel. The same thing is with these ferry boats, even worse." 

Fay added it will also improve local air quality by limiting pollution from particulates. 

How does KUOW listener Nick Wilson feel about it? Although he’s had to scramble to make it to medical appointments on time, he supports the fuel savings plan – as long as he knows when the boat is going to land.

The sentiment was echoed by some of the passengers on the Bainbridge Island run.  

"I don't think they should be late. A lot of people depend on the ferries as mass transit, and a lot of people have all their timing set around it,” Leslie Gordon said. “But if they're going to slow down, they should reset the ferry schedule, and then people could reset their expectations." 

Other passengers were less worried about it. 

"It's absolutely fine,” Heather Boose said. “I know every minute counts when you're making a commute to work, but it's a nice enough commute that you can enjoy the few extra minutes." 

The fuel savings program is a start, but a much more ambitious climate change program is in the works to convert the biggest ferries to hybrid engines that will run almost entirely on electricity. The shift could mean a massive drop in carbon dioxide emissions on some runs, according to the ferry system, particularly when the boat is plugged in on the Seattle side, which relies mostly on hydroelectric power.  


Year started with KUOW: 2004