The central fact of life for the Washington State Ferry system is the confluence of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, framed by Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula, and Puget Sound, a narrow fjord that pushes a hundred miles from its mouth at the San Juan Islands to the state capitol in Olympia.
It is a complicated mix of constituencies and demands. The San Juans are rural and rely heavily on a seasonal tourist industry. Service interruptions there rattle through the entire community. Further south, routes require service to swarms of commuters along with vacationers and their campers headed for the Olympic Peninsula. There is international service to Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
The Washington State Ferries serve 22 million people annually on 22 vessels at 20 terminals. It makes 500 trips a day and is the third largest ferry system in the world.
The Washington State Ferry system is sixty years old this year and its birth was long and loud. Like many troublesome things in the ferry business, the change from a private system to a public one started over a fare increase gone bad.
Captain Alexander Peabody was the owner of Puget Sound Navigation. He was an aristocrat, a free-enterprising Republican -- he built the Kalakala for God's sake -- the streamlined ferry the Saturday Evening Post called the "biggest nautical event since Noah's Arc." He married a Bremerton girl and moved to The Highlands, the most exclusive neighborhood in town then and now. His great grandfather was a Captain in the Black Ball Line that served the Liverpool and New York route in the early 19th Century. His dad started in the ferry business in Puget Sound at the end of the century and Peabody took over the company and revived the Black Ball brand in the twenties.
The early maritime public transport in the Puget Sound was a swarm of big and little vessels called the mosquito fleet. Peabody was a relentless and canny aggregator who soon swatted away the small boats, started putting cars on his ferries and took control of the routes in and near Puget Sound. What he couldn't control were the gritty labor unions like the Inland Boatman's Union and the Marine Engineers Benevolent Association who struck frequently in the thirties and later, made up for lost time after World War II was over.
Peabody wanted recognition for keeping rates down during the war and he needed peace with his unions. So, soon after gaining a ten percent post war increase he asked for another 30% average increase in 1947.
The State Transportation Department, then the ferry rates regulator, initially approved but backed off after the system's 100,000 ferry riders went crazy. There was reason to be upset. A car and driver from Seattle to Port Angeles paid a fairly stiff $10.10 in 1946 but was looking at $17.82 in 1947. Seattle-Bremerton went from $1.76 to $3.10. The Transportation Department then said it would approve the rate on a contingent basis and conduct a thorough review of the company's books. After six months, the state came back with the news that only 10% was justified and the company would have to offer a refund to every rider who could produce a ticket.
Now it was Peabody's time to go crazy and he threatened to tie up his boats. Few believed him, but he did. The system's riders found alternatives. The Edmonds Beachcombers Club chartered "Sea Dream" to serve the Kingston traffic. The Vashon Chamber of Commerce charterwd the 65 foot "Gallant Lady" and the "Lincoln." Bainbridge Island snapped up "The Virginia V." The Navy, operating the Bremerton Shipyard at full bore, sent LSTs to its facilities in Seattle to pick up its workers. On the first run, an enormous rat ran the length of the ship to the cheers of the passengers.
A couple of weeks later, when Black Ball tried to restart service to Vashon, a group of men would not let the boat land.
"We're not going to let anyone off or on that boat," said F. C. Bard, Chamber of Commerce President. " We've got 25 good, husky young lads down here and we know where we can get lots more."
By the end of 1949, the state had negotiated a deal with Peabody that kept the system in place until the state could assume full responsibility, in June of 1951, paying Peabody $5,000,000. Peabody wouldn't sell the route from Port Angeles to Victoria and Black Ball still plies that route today. Peabody died in 1980.
In the 1980s, frustrated by the fluctuation in revenue from the state's gas tax, the principal source of funding at the time of the takeover, WSF persuaded the legislature to let it use the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax as its principal funding source.
In 1999, taxpayer activist Tim Eyman had the appealing idea of replacing the state's Motor Vehicle Excise Tax with a simple, single license fee. The MVET was based on a percentage of the car's value and it was not unusual to cough up $200-$300 dollars for your license tabs. The initiative that was circulating proposed a simple $30 charge. Voters quickly got the math and the initiative passed, taking away $160 million in annual revenue or a third of the WSF operating budget.
That blow was quickly followed by 9/11 and the security costs that followed.
At the same time, ferry ridership had peaked and would, over the next several years, began a slow decline, accelerated by the price response to the fare increases needed to replace the MVET loss. Fare box revenue was 25%-40% of operating costs before the fateful decision to leave the gas tax, and stands at a remarkable 70% today.
The fleet’s age, always a problem, began to show after 2000. Deferred maintenance led to less reliable service while, at the same time, there was no money for newer, more efficient boats. The decision by the state legislature to put on a requirement that the system could only contract with an in-state boat builder limited the system's bargaining power. The steady rise of fuel prices, the relentless cost increases that followed and the startling announcement that the system was scrapping four vessels because they were no longer safe all ate at even the most supportive constituents.
Tomorrow is always intruding on the state ferry system. No comparable fleet in the world has such aged boats. British Columbia boats average 21 years of age, Norway's boats average 28. The ferry system average is 38 years. To keep the average age of the fleet steady, WSF needs to build a new boat every three years. The capital set asides it enjoyed prior to 2000 are gone now and each new budget is a fight against an impressive array of other priorities. The main costs of the system are people at 59% and fuel at 21%, which leaves little room for further cost reductions or new boats. Despite the tough times, two new ferries have been recently delivered and another is under construction. All are on time and on budget. The system has a solid on-time record, 97% of the time.
The choices that people can make – like working at home – and the choices over which people have no control – like aging – keep chipping away at the customer base. Many of the ferry destinations where middle class workers lived have turned into retirement communities.
Still, at 60, Washington State Ferries remains the state’s most popular tourist attraction. It is a classic amalgam of bread and circuses. Bleary commuters sit at their computers while gawkers from Kansas gape at Mount Rainier.
Other factors lead people to believe the years of neglect have passed into something better. Costs have been cut by $28 million a year. Stupid work rules have changed and the unions agreed to a haircut in 2011 to help the system. It maintains a global leader in safety for both its workers and passengers.
Today, the system struggles to create a new set of relationships with its riders and the legislature, which they can only get by renewing the covenant it had, sixty years ago, when it promised no more chaos and delivered reliable, affordable service to people living in Washington's inland sea.