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News / Northwest

Inslee rebuffs calls by gubernatorial candidates to buy diesel ferries

By Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times
Published: April 29, 2024, 7:46am

Gov. Jay Inslee is rebuffing calls to rethink the state’s insistence on building new electric ferries even as leading candidates to succeed him are saying they’d consider buying diesel vessels to ease the ongoing ferry system crisis.

At a news conference last week touting $156 million in federal money for solar energy projects, Inslee brought up the ferry system unprompted, reacting to criticism from media and political candidates second-guessing the state’s plans to buy hybrid-electric boats.

Inslee called diesel a “dirty, nasty old technology” and slammed proposals to reconsider diesel boats as “a brain dead thing” that would only cause more delays.

But top candidates for governor — Republicans and Democrats — also have joined the chorus of discontent about the ferries, which had over 3,500 canceled sailings in 2023.

Even Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the fellow Democrat whose gubernatorial bid has been endorsed by Inslee, is signaling he’d be willing to have the state consider diesel boats.

In a transportation plan published on his campaign website, Ferguson said if elected governor said he’d “immediately” issue a request for proposals for two new ferries to be delivered as soon as possible, “including diesel ferries if this is the fastest solution.”

Dave Reichert, the former congressman and King County sheriff, says he’d “fast track” contracts for up to five new “clean-diesel powered ferries” that could later be converted to hybrid electric.

Reichert mocked Ferguson in a statement as coming late to the ferry crisis, saying he “seems to be using conservative ideas to suddenly ‘fix’ the ferry system that has been broken for years. Looks like Bob missed the boat.”

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Gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, also criticized Ferguson in an interview as “late to the game,” saying lawmakers have “been talking about this for a long time.”

He said “all options should be on the table” and that the state should hit the “pause button” on converting ferries to electric until the fleet has been stabilized.

The governor was responding in part to a Seattle Times editorial criticizing his administration’s “feckless leadership” of the ferry system, which has struggled with crew shortages and an aging, deteriorating fleet.

Inslee said all the criticism is missing a key fact, pointing to statements from transportation officials that rejiggering the state’s ferry purchase contracts and plans now would only cause more delay.

In an interview after the news conference this last week, Inslee said he wants “boats in the water as fast as we get them.”

But, he said, if the state were to switch away from electric boats to diesel now, “that actually delays construction, because you have to start the whole bidding process, start the whole design process … So it’s an extremely misguided position.”

On Friday, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk pointed to statements by Washington State Ferries chief Steve Nevey, who said at an April news conference buying more diesel-powered vessels is not a realistic option.

“We would be a year further back from where we are now with the plans we have for electric vehicles,” Nevey said, according to KUOW.

Washington is expected to pick a builder for its new class of electric-hybrid ferries this summer, with two new vessels targeted for delivery by late 2028.