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Tuesday, June 6, 2023
June 6, 2023

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What new federal money will mean for Washington ferries


SEATTLE — The federal government has awarded Washington State Ferries $4.9 million to help build an electric-ferry charging station for the busy Mukilteo-Clinton line, and $5 million for dock improvements to improve transit and pedestrian connections at Southworth.

Those grants, along with $1.7 million for WSF to buy modern ferry-payment software and systems, are to be announced Thursday by the Federal Transit Administration.

FTA’s latest ferry spending represents a modest sum that might help Puget Sound agencies get moving on new projects, and displays the federal government’s new zeal to subsidize cleaner transportation.

Washington state can seek greater contributions later, for its massive electrification program affecting boats and terminals across Puget Sound. New hybrid ferries will run mainly on rechargeable batteries rather than diesel.

The $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, provides $250 million over five years for converting diesel ferries to cleaner fuels, and a federal share of up to 85% for clean ferries projects.

Washington state’s ferry electrification plan calls for 16 new or converted boats, along with charging stations throughout Puget Sound. Lawmakers have earmarked $1.33 billion to build five boats, paid by future carbon taxes and license fees. But WSF’s original timeline, to launch the first hybrid by 2024 at Vigor shipyard in Seattle, collapsed. The state and the company didn’t agree on price, according to the trade website MarineLink. The state will solicit new bids soon, hoping that other boatbuilders can create or expand facilities in Washington state.

Ferries Director Patty Rubstello said this month the next 144-car hybrid ferry, Wishkah, isn’t expected until 2027, so mechanics must nurse the aging fleet longer.

Before then, the state still expects to convert the ferry Wenatchee from diesel to hybrid power by 2024, followed by the Tacoma and Puyallup.

The Wishkah is intended to serve the Mukilteo-Clinton route, where the $4.9 million federal aid will cover more than one-quarter of the state’s estimated $19.3 million cost to build charging connections, transformers and power cables at Clinton, on the south end of Whidbey Island.

Hooking up can be a challenge, amid changing tides and waves.

WSF will install charging stations a few yards offshore at each dock, where mobile arms will pivot and stretch toward arriving ferries, to be plugged into the boats, said spokesperson Suanne Pelley.

Electric ferry power at Clinton is scheduled for 2027, while Seattle and Bainbridge would be equipped by 2026 or 2027, she said.

State ferries are traditionally links in the state highway network, and designed to move cars over water. However, the FTA counts walk-on passengers as transit customers. (WSF carried 17.4 million people last year, of which 3.4 million or 18% walked or biked aboard.)

Mukilteo-Clinton ranks near the bottom for walk-ons at 6%. Efforts are underway to change that, including the longhouse-shaped Mukilteo passenger terminal finished two years ago.

“Obviously with the beauty of the area there, any greenhouse gases we can take out of the atmosphere will be better for the environment and the quality of life,” said FTA spokesperson Paul Kincaid.

The Southworth dock, where ferries depart to Vashon Island and West Seattle, will be equipped with accessible facilities to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, according to FTA’s award list.

Washington’s three grants are among 23 nationwide that totaled $384 million, of which Alaska will receive $286 million to sustain its vast rural network. Other projects include electric conversions of New Jersey Transit boats, new facilities serving Beaver Island, Michigan, and maintenance funds for ferries off the Maine coast.