Breaking News
More () »

Democratic transportation bill takes aim at struggling ferry system. Here's how it would be funded

The 16-year, $16-billion party line plan includes four new hybrid-electric boats, dockside charging stations, and improved hiring, training, and retention efforts.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A legislative lifeline appears to be on the way for the struggling Washington State Ferry system.

Crippled by budget cuts, an aging fleet and now the pandemic, the ferries have been treading water for years.

Riders like Pam Coleman know to expect waits of an hour or two on the Edmonds to Kingston crossing.

"It's a waste of time really because I'm working," she said, sitting in her car looking at her watch. "It burns up a lot of valuable time when you're trying to get things done during the day."

Problems for the nation's biggest ferry system in recent years include long lines to board, fewer boats to get people where they need to be, more malfunctions, and a worker shortage.

>> Download KING 5's Roku and Amazon Fire apps to watch live newscasts and video on demand

But there is hope on the horizon in the form of a 16-year, $16-billion transportation package that includes a number of strategies aimed at helping the ferry system.

The Democrat-introduced Senate Bill would, in part, fully fund four new hybrid-electric boats.

It also would build ferry charging stations on docks and provide money to better hire, train and retain workers. 

"It's the worst it has ever been here," said Orcas Island resident Rick Hughes, whose family has lived in the San Juans since the 1940s. "It got really bad during the pandemic. People couldn't go to medical appointments, they couldn't get supplies."

Hughes is a member of the Orcas Island Ferry Advisory Committee who has been working on better funding the ferry system for a decade.

"It's like a dream come true," said Hughes, a small business owner on the island. "Not only is it an amazing transportation vehicle, it's something that is Washington, just like the Space Needle."

The ranking Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee, Curtis King, R-14th Dist., complains members of his party have had very little input on the bill.

That's apparently because the majority of Democrats believe they have the votes to pass the plan without any Republicans.

They found funding for the bill that does not involve a gas tax increase or new bonds. Either one of those would have required a 60% majority vote, as opposed to a simple majority.

"When you look at what's being proposed you can see why," said King. "It is a Christmas tree of everything, every issue they have wanted for the last four years."

Here's how it would be funded

The plan taps into billions in federal funds, a one-time transfer of $2 billion from the operating budget, $2 billion from a 6-cent exported fuel tax, and $5.4 billion from the Climate Commitment Act, which passed the state Legislature last year.

Millions more would come from other revenue streams, such as increased driver's license and plate fees. The proposal includes a $24 fee increase to $42 for a six-year, enhanced driver's license. The fee for an eight-year license would go up by $32 to $56 on October 1, 2022.

On Feb. 15, the Senate approved the bill.

The bill now heads to the House.

It is expected to be passed on a party-line vote and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

Before You Leave, Check This Out