I feel fortunate to live in an area that allows me the opportunity to choose to travel occasionally by sea rather than land, typically along the Mukilteo-Clinton route, one of the two most traveled in the WSF system (the other is the Edmonds Kingston). Twenty percent of all passenger trips and fifteen percent of all vehicles use each of these two routes every year. These facts did not surprise me, others did. Some positively, others…not. First the good news.
About Washington State Ferries (WSF)
According to WSF, “Washington State Ferries is the largest ferry system in the United States, serving eight counties within Washington and the Province of British Columbia in Canada. Our existing system has 10 routes and 20 terminals that are served by 22 vessels.” The WSF Traffic Statistics page indicates that in 2014, total ridership was 23.2 million persons (that is not a typo), up 2.7% from the previous year. In 2002, the first year for which data is available, ridership was 25.1 million, it declined for the following ten years, bottoming out in 2012 at 22.2 million persons, but has been on the upswing during the last two.
WSF routes run as far north as Sidney on Vancouver Island in Canada and as far south as Point Defiance in Tacoma as shown on this route map.
More positives: no matter how short the trip, riders who make their way to the upper deck are bound to enjoy the experience. Seeing these juvenile gulls one mid-July day as we departed the Coupeville terminal was one of my favorite ferry-travel wildlife encounters of all time. The luckiest, most time efficient experience for those who don’t make a reservation ahead of time: arriving in time to make it on board a vessel in the process of loading. WSDOT recommends, “Vehicles should be in line at least 20 minutes prior to scheduled departure time and are loaded in order of arrival with a few exceptions,” which is good to know because once you’ve paid your fare at the toll booth and been directed to one of many lines, the line loading order may not seem logical to drivers. If you are traveling by vehicle, make a reservation to ensure your spot on board: walk-on passengers and bicyclers are guaranteed a spot.
The Washington State Ferries system has been in existence since 1951, when “a newly-created Washington Toll Bridge Authority, now known as Washington State Ferries” bought Puget Sound Navigation Company’s terminal facilities and ferries except those along one route for $5 million. “In its first year of service, the state-operated ferry system carried approximately four million passengers. Ferries were originally planned to be a temporary solution to travel across Puget Sound until bridge structures could be constructed, but eight years later “the Legislature rejected the plan to build numerous cross-sound bridges.” Over the years, the WSF has added newer, larger vessels to its fleet to meet demand. One of the more recent was the Tokitae, the first Olympic class ferry, with a construction cost of $144 million. Controversy accompanied the craft when it went into service on the Clinton-Mukilteo route in June of 2014, Rocky start for new state ferry; lawmakers demand ‘major overhaul’, “The Tokitae has a design flaw that causes some cars to scrape bottom on the edge of ramps. Coursey says crews have to sort vehicles by size and weight and direct them either to the main deck or side ramps.” A two minute thirty second time lapse video shows the complexity of ferry construction:
Funding of the WSF system from transportation taxes has declined over the years. According to a 2011 article in The Capitol Record, entitled Staying Afloat: Challenges Facing Washington State Ferries, the problem boils down to the elimination of the MVET, “The funding problem: in 1999, Washington voters approved Initiative 695, a measure that eliminated the state’s motor vehicle excise tax – a tax imposed on the percentage of a vehicle’s estimated value….The car tab tax is now a flat fee of $30. The MVET, as it was known, was a critical funding source for ferries. With its repeal, the governor’s office estimates the system has lost $1.2 billion over a decade. Ferry officials say the projected shortfall over the next 10 years is nearly $1 billion more….Fares pay for about 70% of daily operational costs of running the ferries. For comparison, a typical transit system recovers less than 30% of its costs through ticket sales.”
The DOT reports, “Our vehicle fares are based on a vehicle’s length, height, and width, as well as the distance you will be traveling on board our ferry.” Fares, set by the Transportation Commission, vary from $3.25 per in-vehicle or walk-on passenger traveling on the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry to $19.25 for the Anacortes or San Juan terminal to Sidney, BC. Prices for peak season, which runs from May 1 through September 30, are higher only for vehicles and drivers paying full fare.
As shown on this Funding Sources graphic, ferry fares are a significant source of income in Washington State, $357.2 million for 2015-2017 budget. The Revenue Recovery rate (RRR), the ratio of fares collected to operating expense, provides a common way to compare costs for different modes of transportation. For 2015 to 2017 at least, the RRR for the WSF system is (357.2/467.2) or 0.76 (76%).
Including capital costs into the ratio ($303.3 million)-and why aren’t capital costs included in the standard of comparison-for the WSF system-the ratio of Ferry Fare collection/Capital plus Operating cost is 0.46, which is better than the RRR for every mode of transit except Vanpool. Washington State Ferries FY2014 Route Statements support the fact that the Farebox Recovery for ferry transportation is relatively high compared to other modes of transportation in spite of the loss of MVET.
Ferry Fare Collection to Be Incorporated Into Existing Tolling System
In 2018, WSDOT plans to roll out a new system of fare collection, currently handled through two systems: the ORCA and the Wave2Go pass, which will incorporate ferry tolling into the state’s existing tolling system (see the JOINT TOLL AND FERRY CSC FEASIBILITY STUDY FINAL January 30, 2014), which includes more bad news for transportation. The same WSDOT Budget graphic (above) indicates that for the 2015-2017 budget, toll operations and maintenance costs will be $84,900,000, up 24% from the previous (2013-2015) budget, likely due to the I-405 Express Toll Lanes from Bellevue to Lynnwood, controversial in and of itself. Toll Revenues of $127,500,000, mean that 84.0/127.5 or 66.6% of Tolls collected are required to fund management of the system. In fact, Stephanie Klein’s March 2015 article Critics blast new I-405 tolling as money grab aimed at forcing drivers onto buses claims, “As much as 75 percent of the collected tolls will merely pay for the tolling system itself.” I might add here that our neighbors to the north are exempt from paying tolls along this route Why Canadians don’t have to pay for tolls on I-405 because, “Canada has an even tougher version of the U.S. Patriot Act. It will not give up citizens’ information, even for tolling.” Fortunately, only “Two-tenths of one-percent of plates going through the toll system are Canadian.”
Comparison of Ferry Employee vs General State Government Worker Benefit or Work Rules
The Employment page of the WSF site explains the difference between unionized workers, which include all workers except those in “Management, Engineering, Information Technology and all other Administrative Positions,” who are employed by the WSDOT. Controversy surrounding the WSF has been on the rise for the past five years or so. A 2013 investigation by King 5 News, Another perk for ferry engineers cost taxpayers millions shows one of several a seemingly frivolous expensive-to taxpayers items in the Marine Engineer Beneficial Association (MEBA) contract, “For 30 years, the state has paid about 70 ferry workers – engine room employees who work below deck – to drive to and from work once a week, every week they work. Those collecting this pay work on boats based out of Anacortes and Port Townsend, “…approximatedly $400,000 a year for those weekly round trips.” A WSDOT publication from January of 2011, “Comparison of Ferry Employee Benefits and Work Rules to General State Government Worker Benefits,” concluded that, “Annual costs for ferry workers in comparison to general state government employees, assuming the same hours worked, same rate of sick leave use, and equivalent length of employment for purposes of calculating vacation accruals, is approximately $6.5 million.” That fact seems to contradict Ed Friedrich’s April 2012 Kitsap Sun article, Survey shows state ferry workers lag in pay behind peers, which showed that, “Shipyard employees lag the market by 5.4%, terminal and vessel positions by 6.7%, and administrative staff by 15.7%,” due in part to workers agreeing to a pay cut. I could not find a more recent version of the “Comparison…” study, but the WSDOT Budget 2015-2017 graphic includes an item for “Compensation” of $43,800,000 for, “employee compensation adjustments due to 2015-2017 collective bargaining agreements,” spelled out in detail in the document, “Governor’s 2015–17 Compensation Plan,” including $14,213,000 for “Ferry Employees (Marine Unions).” Plenty of that is for yearly salary raises negotiated through collective bargaining agreements. That is to say that the salary plus benefits package for unionized WSF workers is significant. As of early December, 2015 Washington State Ferries is looking for 60 new deckhands.
In conclusion, the WSF system is not without waste. Costs associated with Ferry employee benefits and work rules compared to those of general state government workers are significant, as are Capital costs associated with terminal maintenance and ferry fleet maintenance and replacement; however, the metric by which the efficiency of public transportation systems are measured and compared, the Revenue Recovery Rate, for WSF is about 75%, at least three times as efficient as all other modes of public transit except Vanpooling. Based on that fact and a non-data-driven analysis, my own experiences during dozens of trips on ferries, I’ve found WSF workers to be both friendly, patient and efficient, which leads me to believe that the WSF system succeeds at their mission, “to make a positive contribution to the livability and economic vitality of our region by providing a safe, reliable, and efficient ferry transportation system.” For more information about the Washington State Ferries, check out their site and WSDOT blog.