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.
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.
“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.”
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