Is it time to revisit passenger ferries?

Once again, ferry-dependent communities are faced with what seems to be an annual event: threats of service cuts. It’s unlikely that we’ll find a quick and easy solution to the continued funding crisis, given that since 2000 the state legislature has been unable to come up with a stable source of funding for Washington State Ferries. Even once a stable source of funding is secured, it’s very hard to imagine that ferry service will remain at current levels of service, considering the deep funding cuts that are being required to keep our state solvent.

Permanent loss of service will impact all ferry communities by reducing the ability of commuters to keep their off-island jobs, reduce income to tourist-oriented businesses, and probably make owning a second home in the Islands a much less appealing prospect. In short, less service means that island communities could decline economically and socially.

Our current fleet of ferries is aging and in need of replacement; however, the new car ferries coming on line have higher operating costs than the older boats, so both capital and operating costs will continue to rise even as ridership declines.

So what can we do? A recent discussion over at the Ferry Community Partnership’s Yahoo group offers some ideas and insight. (If you’re not currently a member of the group, we highly recommend you join, as it’s an active group with highly knowledgeable and effective members.) In short, the discussion revolves around the idea of using passenger-only ferries to provide a level of service that is now being supplied by auto ferries. Auto ferries are fabulously expensive to build compared to passenger ferries and have much higher operating costs.

It’s not all roses, however; WSF has a dismal track record on making passenger-only ferries work in cost-effective manner, and the economics of private passenger ferries so far hasn’t worked out. But as fuel costs continue to rise and transit connections are becoming more viable (albeit at a glacial pace), it’s possible to imagine scenarios where passenger ferries can indeed replace service now being provided by car ferries, and doing so more efficiently.

As an example, take a look at a recent article about a possible passenger ferry for Port Townsend: Port Townsend Foot Ferry a Step Closer. Check out the comments too: there are excellent ideas about connecting bike paths, Zipcar service, and more.

Would a passenger ferry work for you? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.


3 thoughts on “Is it time to revisit passenger ferries?

  1. Randall Waugh

    Streamline entrepreneurial opportunities to businesses that service ferry walk on passengers such as taxis, shuttles, busses, trucks that enable riders to shop, take care of business, provide tourist services, and such needed activities. Reduce fees and business taxes for a period of time to help these businesses start, say 5 years. Make it affordable and there may be a (mosquito) fleet of people, who now need jobs, and their vehicles ready to retrieve and deliver goods and people.

  2. Eric

    Labor, fuels, and capital costs are the numerator and the effective load factor is the denumerator. A lower result requires less public subsidy for any chosen fare schedule. This means the most effective community contribution may be designing business strategies that create off hour and reverse direction commuter traffic. Other inferences from this general rule include staying away from the high fuel utilization of current high speed ferries. The slower hulls of past passenger designs, remember the mesquito fleet, often focused on using very low horsepower drastically reducing the metric of “fuel used to move a passenger seat one mile.” Vessel size influences labor costs and the all important load factor, but exclusively going small increases weather related cancellations.
    Everything is possible with an open mind!


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