Sound Off: Our ferry system is vital — and it needs reform

We need better ferry service.

As you know, we’ve seen far too many ferry sailings cancelled this year. I’ve been working with my colleagues in the Legislature over the last year to ensure lawmakers understand the impact of these cancellations — and to find solutions to help prevent this from happening in the future.

I’m also working directly with Washington State Ferries (WSF), the Washington State Department of Transportation, and the governor’s office to ensure they are focused on the building back a more resilient ferry system.

Ferries are vital to the economy and quality of life in our region. For many of us, they are the quickest way to jobs, classes, or medical appointments. Ferries are also critically important to local businesses and economic development. Businesses need reliable and predictable ferry service to ensure they receive food, goods, lumber, and supplies that we need in our homes and communities.

Many small businesses—especially those most impacted by the pandemic—rely on ferries to bring tourists and visitors to our region. That’s especially important in fall and winter, when fewer people travel and shop in our community.

Our community needs a sustainable, effective ferry system.

So how do we make that happen?

First, we must do more to address the workforce shortage within WSF. Toward that end, WSF should:

l Extend the emergency workforce recruitment efforts begun this summer and fall, including to our high schools and community colleges.

l Increase opportunities for crewmembers to be cross-trained across job classifications and classes of ferries.

l Replace the antiquated on-call system to more efficiently connect open positions with on-call personnel.

l Attract more state residents into the industry by ensuring that ferry personnel are paid competitive wages.

l Make permanent a system to allow ferry personnel to more easily change routes if emergencies arise.

Second, we must fund the construction of new ferries for our aging fleet. We know older ferries are more prone to mechanical failures. To keep our fleet running smoothly, our state must commit to building a new ferry every two years.

In addition, WSF should seriously consider building only 144-car ferries moving forward. Doing so would ensure that ferry operations and maintenance personnel can move more seamlessly from ferry to ferry, without needing expensive cross-training across ferry classes.

Finally, I will continue to advocate that our state keeps its commitment to building ferries here in the Puget Sound region. We must keep skilled marine construction jobs in our community. Not only will this help our neighbors by providing high-pay and high-skilled jobs, but it will help to sustain the capacity of our region to meet the future construction and preservation needs of the ferry and transportation system.

Further, if our state makes the commitment to building a new ferry every two years, then local shipbuilders can partner to develop competitive bids — knowing that they can sustain their construction efforts for ten years or more.

That’s good for our entire region, from Freeland to Anacortes to Everett — and for everyone in Washington.

Rep. Dave Paul is an Oak Harbor resident who represents District 10 in the state House of Representatives. He serves on the House Transportation Committee and is co-chair of the Legislature’s Ferry Caucus.