The Washington State Ferries (WSF) system is the largest of its kind in the United States, operating 22 vessels and carrying over 22 million passengers per year on 10 routes. The service is operated by the state Department of Transportation and has been adding new vessels in recent years.
2010 through 2011 saw the addition of three Kwa-di Tabil class 64-car ferries to replace the aging Steel Electric class. Currently under construction is the first of the Olympic Class ferries, MV Tokitae and MV Samish, and pending funding WSDOT has committed to ordering two more from Vigor Shipyards. (Trivia: state law requires the ferries to be constructed within Washington.) The Olympic Class is intended to replace the Evergreen State Class ferries, which have been in service since the 1950s, and is based on the versatile 124-car Issaquah class. According to the project page, the Olympic Class vessels will cost $109-115 million, last 60 years, produce less emissions, and increase passenger comfort and safety. The MV Tokitae (in the video below) is expected to be operational in 2014 and the MV Samish in 2015.
The MV Hyak is also undergoing a major upgrade to its engines to make it more fuel efficient and to reduce maintenance costs.
As a major transportation route in the region, ensuring the WSF fleet is updated and maintained is vital for connecting Kitsap and San Juan communities to Seattle and other cities. According to San Juan County, the system is the number one tourist attraction in the state, but it’s also used by thousands of daily commuters and commercial drivers.
The unique landscape of the Puget Sound has made boats a sensible form of transportation since the area was first settled. Of course, in typical mid-20th century highway boom fashion, concepts were drawn up for road bridges crossing the sound (see page 5 for a map) and replacing the ferries. If that had happened, it’s possible Kitsap Peninsula would be much more populated today. There’s also the issue that western Washington has had a less than stellar record with bridges.
Though the system has faced budget and service cuts in recent years, it remains steadfastly afloat. Even so, fare increases are on the way to ensure revenue meets expenditures ($400+ million just for operations and maintenance); according to the Mercer Island Reporter, “General-fare changes include a 2 percent increase passenger fares and a 3 percent increase on vehicles. The changes would start Oct. 1. An additional 2 percent increase for passengers and 2.5 percent increase for vehicles would take effect on May 1, 2014.”
The ferries contribute to Northwest character and are a vital link between the many waterside communities. (Also check out the service that runs between Port Angeles and Victoria, BC.) The 1800 employees that make sure the ferries run smoothly ensure commuters get to work, businesses contribute to the economy, and tourists enjoy the natural splendor of our region.