Way out in the arid wheat country of Eastern Washington, the state runs something that seems a bit out of place. It’s a ferry called the Martha S.
Every year, it shuttles about 60,000 cars across a stretch of the Columbia River where the river turns into Lake Roosevelt.
It provides service for residents and tourists including hunters, anglers and campers who want to get to the remote area around the tiny town of Keller, near Grand Coulee Dam.
Keller consists of a school, community center, post office, and general store. The residents, such as the school secretary Kerri Neal, depend on the boat for access to shopping, healthcare and high school for their teens.
“For the community of Keller, it’s our lifeline,” said Neal.
The stretch of water is considered an extension of the main way out of town, Highway 21. The only other option is to drive over one of two tricky mountain passes.
The local mailman, Dwight McKay, is a frequent traveler on the Martha S.
"Four times a day, 303 days a year, except Sundays and holidays," said McKay.
The Keller ferry is unique. In addition to being the only state-operated ferry outside of the Puget Sound area, there’s no set schedule on the run. It operates on demand 18 hours a day, even when just one car needs a lift. The boat is able to load up to 12 cars at a time.
There's something else unique about the Keller ferry. The residents and thousands of tourists who ride it don't buy a ticket, have a ferry pass or carry an Orca card because it doesn’t cost anything to ride the Keller ferry. It’s the only free ferry in the state.
Keeping the 62-year-old Martha S. limping along isn't cheap.In 2009, the Washington State Department of Transportation paid $724,000 in operating costs. Repairs and upgrades cost another $607,000. Fixing a leaking hull added another $28,000. That adds up to more than $1.3 million spent last year alone, with taxpayers across the state picking up the entire tab.
“That just doesn't seem fair," said Tom Thiersch of the Jefferson County Ferry Advisory Committee. Ferry riders he represents in the Port Townsend area pay nearly $23 round trip for a car and driver in the peak season. "I believe everyone should pay their fair share for what they use. The fact that these folks out there in Eastern Washington manage to get an exemption from the sort of fares we all have to pay around here seemed fundamentally unfair to me."
WSDOT says a 1926 federal law prevents them from collecting any cash on the Keller run. The law prohibited states from receiving federal funding for building roads, such as Highway 21, if toll bridges or ferries were on the route.
"One of the stipulations for federal funding is that there could not be a toll road or ferry as part of the route," said Al Gilson, the Public Information Officer for the WSDOT, Eastern Region.
A top WSDOT manager out of Olympia told KING 5 the same thing in an e-mail.
“When WSDOT took it (the ferry run) over in 1931, a stipulation in the agreement with the federal government was that the ferry would not have tolls. This stipulation actually had to do with receiving federal money to make improvements in a highway north of the ferry crossing. So, there have been no tolls since this legislation was enacted,” wrote WSDOT Communications Director Steve Pierce.
The KING 5 Investigators found that law was actually changed in 1956, when Congress ruled states could collect tolls on routes like Highway 21.
WSDOT says it probably wouldn't make financial sense to sell tickets anyway. They believe what the state could charge riders for the quick 10 minute trip across the Columbia wouldn't even cover the cost of toll booths and ticket takers. But they admit they haven't conducted a scientific study.
"Well, it's expensive, it requires personnel and it's a cost," said Gilson. “Now, we didn’t do a real formal study. We kind of, to use a better word, (did) a ballpark study to see if it’s something that we really should pursue and the answer was 'probably not.'”
There's one more catch to the story of the Keller ferry. The Martha S. is old and needs to be replaced for safety reasons. The boat made its maiden voyage to Keller in 1948 and hasn’t stopped working since.
A new boat means new expenses. Last year, WSDOT spent $675,000 to come up with plans for a replacement ferry -- one that may never be built. The design is a pricey one: $15.5 million to build. That’s millions the state doesn't have right now.
Representative Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, is a member of the House Transportation Committee. Given the push to hike ferry fares in Western Washington and the need for a new boat in Eastern Washington, she plans to pursue some kind of tolling on the Keller run in the next session.
"I think we need to push it. I'm really sensitive to these really rural areas and their transportation needs, but at the same time we've got things coming at us non-stop," said Rolfes.
Some of the residents who spoke with KING 5 in Keller said if there were a toll, it would devastate them financially. The town is in the middle of the Colville Indian Reservation which has a high rate of poverty.
Rep. Rolfes suggested studying the possibility of giving the residents a break and charging tourists to ride the ferry.
One interesting note: the Keller ferry is the only ferry in the state that is not operated by Washington State Ferries. Since the state took the run over from a privately held company, WSDOT has overseen the service.