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WSF: Ferry passenger ridership might never reach 2019 levels

Dec 19, 2023, 6:14 AM

randall federal funding ferry...

A Washington ferry heads away from Seattle on April 6, 2020 in Seattle. (Photo: Karen Ducey, Getty Images)

(Photo: Karen Ducey, Getty Images)

We know the state ferry system is in crisis, but how deep is the financial hole facing the agency?

The financial numbers are about as bad as you might think. Passenger ridership hasn’t recovered from the pandemic, and it might not ever reach 2019 levels, according to data released last week. Vehicle ridership might take another seven years to get back to those pre-pandemic levels.

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And that hits the wallet in a big way. Fewer riders. Fewer dollars.

Even with revised estimates, the ferry system is still in the red by nearly $32 million through 2025, and that’s only the fare box number. That includes the 4% fare increase that took effect in October.

Washington State Transportation Commission chair Debbie Young asked ferries division director of finance Todd Lamphere to confirm this at their meeting last week.

“We passed a fare increase, which at the time was intended would raise the $418 million that was accounted for in the legislative budget, but because the revenue forecast has changed, we’re now under funding by about $31.7 million,” Young stated for verification.

“That is correct,” Lamphere answered.

Current ridership, combining both vehicles and passengers, is 76% from 2019 levels. Passenger ridership is just 55% of pre-pandemic levels.

But there is some positive news in these latest numbers. Passenger ridership has increased by 10% over the last few months, which is kind of amazing considering how many trips are being missed.

More ferries: New ferry boats in Washington at least four years away

“But it’s interesting to note that ridership is increasing,” Young said. “I’ve reminded myself that it’s increasing in spite of having fewer boats than we had in 2019. We have fewer boats and less service, and yet we’re still getting increasing numbers of passengers across those routes.”

“It is increasing, but it is not increasing at the rate to which we would like it to increase and have forecasted previously,” Lamphere countered.

The ferry service is currently running with the bare minimum of boats, just 15 of the 21 in the fleet.  The total number of missed sailings this year is still being calculated, but it’s likely to be in the thousands again.

New boats are not expected to enter service until 2028 at the earliest.

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WSF: Ferry passenger ridership might never reach 2019 levels