While The Impact’s weekly show is on a two-month hiatus, I’m spending my time riding Washington State ferries to various Puget Sound islands: Bainbridge, San Juans, Whidbey. This is not a vacation; this is a plum, summer-long special assignment. I’m exploring the current challenges of one of the world’s largest ferry systems, which transports 23 million riders a year through nine routes in the Puget Sound. It’s a critical transportation link for commuters and commercial traffic, and it’s widely considered one of the biggest tourism draws for the state. And yet, ferry operations, maintenance and construction face persistent funding problems; fares have skyrocketed over the past decade while ridership has declined; and ferry administrators have been forced to fight off a series of public relations disasters. In order to better understand these issues, Washington State Ferries managers have granted us unprecedented access to the boats and maintenance facilities.
Riding on the MV Sealth, an inter-island ferry for the San Juan Islands
But before we can fully grasp today’s issues, we need to understand how the Puget Sound marine highway developed starting in the late 1800s. From its origins as a disjointed fleet of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of boats known as the “Mosquito Fleet”, to the dominance of a single private ferry company known as the Black Ball Line, to the state’s decision to take over the ferry system in 1951, we’ll examine how the ferry system became what it is today.
And then we’ll look to the future and ask tough questions: how can policymakers keep the ferry system afloat? Can they find funding to replace more than half the fleet over the next three decades? Should the state be in the ferry business at all or should private enterprise be brought in to modernize it? And if state leaders can’t provide more predictability over services and fares for customers or improve the ferry system’s public image, will ferry riders abandon the service all together?
We’re interviewing riders, ferry workers, the state ferry chief, state legislators, local elected leaders, transportation analysts, history buffs and more. Stay tuned for The Impact special report on TVW, coming in September.