Commissioner Bacon urges lawmakers to prioritize ferry funding

Bacon is speaking up about the dire need for better ferry service on Whidbey Island.

Island County Commissioner Melanie Bacon is speaking up about the dire need for better ferry service on Whidbey Island.

Bacon, whose district encompasses Central and South Whidbey, occupies a unique position in the state. The Coupeville-Port Townsend and Clinton-Mukilteo ferry routes are both located within the district that she represents.

Last month Bacon testified via Zoom about the necessity for more funding during meetings of the state Senate and House transportation committees. She urged state lawmakers to prioritize the funding of ferry staff initiatives and expansion of the fleet.

The Clinton-Mukilteo route is the most heavily driven route in the state, she said, while the Coupeville-Port Townsend route is essential for transporting freight to the Olympic Peninsula.

“We who live on Whidbey Island rely on the ferries to go to the doctor, to shop and travel on the mainland and to get to work,” she said, adding that Boeing is the largest private employer of Island County residents, who must travel to Everett for their jobs.

Riders of the ferry system are all too familiar with its recent challenges, from canceled sailings to fewer boats running the routes than usual. The aging vessels are often in need of repair, which pulls them from service.

Although Washington State Ferries officials released a plan last year to restore service to all routes by spring of 2024, they recently reneged on the timeline in favor of a new plan that says service will continue to be disrupted until new vessels join the fleet, which is expected in 2028.

At the same time, the ferry system has been struggling to recruit enough workers to crew the vessels.

State Rep. Dave Paul, whose district represents Whidbey Island and who serves as vice chair of the House Transportation Committee, said that Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget for 2024 prioritizes ferries.

“Folks have every right to be frustrated and angry, with too many boats out of service and we haven’t built any new boats in over a decade,” Paul said in an interview with The Record.

The governor’s budget includes $16.2 million for additional vessel crew and $11 million for hybrid-electric vessel conversion.

The good news, Paul said, is that up to two builders will be able to simultaneously work on constructing new boats.

“My job is to make sure we are building a boat every other year to make sure we don’t get in this mess again,” he said.