Lawmakers taking hard look at where ferries are built

Mar 22, 2023, 12:09 PM | Updated: Mar 23, 2023, 9:22 am


Ferry in Puget Sound. (Photo by: Insights/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

(Photo by: Insights/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Washington lawmakers have a tough decision to make on the ferry service. Do they abandon environmental and wage goals to get new ferries built faster and cheaper?

The ferry service is in serious trouble. The ferry fleet is old, and boats often get knocked out of service for mechanical issues. It needs new boats desperately.

“Crisis might not be the right word, but I think it’s a borderline crisis,” House Transportation Committee chair Jake Fey said earlier this week.

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The state has been trying to get five new Olympic-class electric hybrid boats built and delivered for a few years, but the contract from state shipbuilder Vigor came in over budget, and the deal was scuttled last year.

Under current law, any new ferries must be built in Washington state unless all bids come in 5-to-10% over budget.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate are now considering a bill that would remove the build-in-Washington requirement.

Gordon Baxter represents the Puget Sound Metal Trades Council. He reminded lawmakers just how important shipbuilding is to our state. “We ask that you not build these boats at the expense of the workforce or the businesses of Washington state due to choices we have made to make Washington a better place to do business, live and work,” he testified.

Many shipbuilders around the country do not have the same environmental rules and protections around the industry that we do in Washington. Our state also has higher wage requirements for its workers.

Those factors routinely make Washington-built boats or ferries more expensive.

“We’re hoping that we can account for those differences to make sure that these boats are built properly, built with a skilled workforce, and that skilled workforce is paid commensurate with the hard work that it takes to build these,” Nichols Brothers Boat Builders Jeff Devere testified.

But there are plenty of people who just want new boats built and want them in service quickly.

Tom Thiersch is the chair of the Ferry Advisory Committee in Jefferson County.

“In my 16-plus years on our committee, I have seen Washington State Ferries spend an enormous amount of money to build ferries,” he said. “Sadly, a lot of that money has been wasted because ferries have been forced to pay more than any other ferry system to build the boats.”

He said it’s time to get rid of the build-in-Washington requirement.

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“Studies have shown that the build-in-Washington mandate has and will increase the cost per boat by about 50% while being of little, if any, long-term benefit to our state,” he said. “Overly subsidizing shipbuilders in Washington is simply not worth it.”

The long-range ferry plan is to have 16 new boats in the fleet by 2040.

One billion dollars has already been earmarked for the five electric hybrid, 144-car boats in the massive 2022 transportation package.

There are 21 ferries in service today. The newest, the Suquamish, was built in 2018. The oldest, the Tillikum, was built in 1959.


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Lawmakers taking hard look at where ferries are built