Sound Off: We support needed ferries redirection

By Ron Muzzall and Greg Gilday

Recently, a coalition of local governments penned a letter to 10th District legislators, voicing their frustrations with the failings of the state’s ferry system that is deeply impacting our constituents. The 10th District is heavily dependent on ferry service and recent sailing cuts and staffing shortages have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We agree with the sentiments stated in the letter and echo the frustration of the authors and want to highlight very real, systemic neglect and mismanagement that’s been a long time coming despite our vocal advocacy. This is a tough issue because no one is served by finger pointing, but there is some humility needed to know just what your limitations are. We are keenly aware what our constituents are facing and the economic and social impacts that the ferry problem is causing.

A few months ago, the 10th District delegation held a town hall with the head of the state ferry system’s government relations to discuss these very issues. It was a frank and transparent conversation, but again, solutions weren’t exactly easy to come by. The reality is that ferries are expensive to operate, both from a capital investment perspective and the human capital needed. The training and certifications required to staff a ferry are tied up in broader federal requirements. Put simply, we can’t just create ferry crews, no matter how much the salaries may be.

While it may be politically expedient to lay blame on individuals for their choices related to the state’s COVID mandates, in the context of our ferry system, it’s a red herring. Staffing and vessel problems aren’t new. Media reports during this legislative session indicate they’ve been behind the eight-ball for almost two decades. There wasn’t a single ferry built for our fleet between 2000 and 2010. The firings surely didn’t help, but the frustration we are seeing is a result of a trend of legislative indifference and executive branch mismanagement.

Let’s be honest, no one likes partisanship. The people we serve deserve results, but simple math shows that those controlling the purse strings and the management of our state’s ferry system are wholly outside of our sphere of influence. We’ve done everything within our constitutionally granted power to fight for a ferry system that our constituents deserve, but the majority has simply not prioritized this issue despite their own members having the same needs.

This is an issue of priorities. There has been more than enough funding over the years, prior to us coming to the Legislature, to meet demand, but WSF staffing, for example, has been funded at the minimum level allowable by the Coast Guard. The state ferry system’s long-term plan calls for 16 new vessels over the next two decades. The transportation proposal that was adopted this year builds four vessels. The package that we supported would have funded five. It’s not a silver bullet, but in the delicate dance of negotiating our diverse transportation needs, more is better when it comes to ferries.

Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, and Rep. Greg Gilday, R-Camano, represent the 10th Legislative District.