Future of the ferries: More riders, terminal improvements, all-electric vessels

Phil Lovell of the Edmonds Planning Board takes notes on the displays at the WSF long-range plan open house.
Phil Lovell of the Edmonds Planning Board takes notes on the displays at the WSF long-range plan open house. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

A small but enthusiastic group of citizens gathered at the Edmonds Senior Center on Thursday evening to learn and ask questions about what the future holds for the Washington State Ferry System.

In particular, those attending learned specifics of the ferry system’s newly-released draft long-range plan, a roadmap through 2040. The plan outlines a range of strategies aimed at maintaining reliable service, providing positive customer experiences, managing growth, and ensuring sustainability and resilience over the next 20 years.

“The last long-range plan was in 2009,” explained ferry system spokesperson Ian Sterling. “This new draft was released on Sept. 1, and outlines our plans to meet the challenges of the future through 2040. Tonight is our fourth public open house to inform folks about the plan and get their feedback, thoughts and ideas.  We’ll then use these to modify the draft before submitting it to the state Legislature in January.”

According to Sterling, the biggest challenge will be handling the expected increase in ridership. The plan proposes to meet this with a combination of strategies to spread peak ridership, upgrade the fleet, and introduce operational improvements at the various terminals.

Ridership is projected to grow by more than a third system-wide over the next 20 years.

At Edmonds alone, ridership is expected to grow from 1.9 million in 2017 to 3.3 million in 2040, and this means some operational and possibly minor physical changes at the Edmonds terminal.

“While we’re not looking at any major structural changes to the Edmonds Terminal, we are looking at operational improvements that will enhance efficiency and rider safety,” said the ferry system’s Nicole McIntosh, who oversees ferry terminal improvements. “We’re hearing from the community that they want enhanced, safe access between the ferry, buses and trains at the increasingly busy Edmonds multi-modal terminal. Some initial ideas we have include an overhead footbridge linking the ferry terminal to the buses and trains, and enlarging the dock to hold more vehicles to ease the congestion along SR 104.”

Another major system-wide improvement will be the advent of all-electric and hybrid drive ferries, the result of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Executive Order 18-01 directing the ferry system to begin transitioning to a zero-carbon-emission ferry fleet. This includes accelerated adoption of both ferry electrification and operational improvements to conserve energy and cut fuel use.

Ferry system spokesperson Ian Sterling, at right, was on hand along with several other staff to answer questions and take feedback
Ferry system spokesperson Ian Sterling, at right, was on hand along with several other staff to answer questions and take feedback. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

“This does not mean getting rid of our vessels and getting new ones,” explained Sterling. “Mechanically our ferries can be compared with diesel-electric locomotives, with the diesel spinning an electric generator that in turn provides the juice to run everything else on the ship, including the motors that spin the propellers. Converting from diesel-electric to all-electric or hybrid involves simply replacing the diesel engines and generators with rechargeable batteries. This is already being done in Norway, and we’re talking with folks from there as we move forward with converting our own fleet.”

So how soon might you ride an electric ferry from Edmonds to Kingston?

“First in line for conversion are our Jumbo Mark II class vessels, one of which — the Puyallup — is on the Edmonds-Kingston run,” said Sterling. “While lots could happen to push this out, the Puyallup could go electric in as soon as five years.”

One issue facing the ferry system is the significant projected loss of key operational staff and vessel crew to retirement.

And then there’s the cost.

Funding is always a challenge for the ferry system, which costs considerably more to operate than it collects. While the total cost to implement this plan over the next 20 years is $14.2 billion, dedicated tax revenue and fare collection are projected to cover only $7.5 billion, leaving a shortfall of $6.7 billion. Because it is a critical link in the state’s transportation system and a linchpin of our economy, the Legislature has historically appropriated additional revenues to cover the shortfall.

Learn more about the ferry system long-range plan and submit your ideas for how to make it better at the Washington State Ferries Long Range Plan and Virtual Open House website. See the full document and additional background information here.

— By Larry Vogel

2 Replies to “Future of the ferries: More riders, terminal improvements, all-electric vessels”

  1. I attended the Open House, and was relieved to learn that WSF isn’t proposing to move the terminal’s location. The likely impacts to the marsh, the dog park and marina by moving to the Pt. Edwards area are far greater than any benefits achieved with a larger holding area, in my opinion. Plus the location of the current holding area provides some benefit to our local businesses from ferry riders grabbing coffee, donuts, etc.


  2. Now that we know the Ferry System does not plan to move then it is time to begin a public discussion of the use of the 22 acres Unocal site. The state will own in when the clean up is complete and it is time for the PUBLIC to begin to think about how we can use that site for the public good. Before we all trot out “Marsh, Whales, Dayliting the creek, and dog do do” let’s put on our creative thinking caps for a change and begin to think about how best to use this public asset. We may be able to come up with some ideas that can solve more than one problem at a time but only if we are willing to first think and contribute before we go on the attack for a given idea. Let be thinkers!


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