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Washington's ferry system is seeing the impact of decades of underfunding


If there's a road closure near your home, you can probably find another way around. But if you live on an island that depends on a ferry and your boat doesn't come, you're probably more or less stranded. It's been happening a lot lately in Washington state, home to the largest ferry system in the country. Almost 19 million people used the ferry last year, and the system is breaking down. In Seattle, KUOW's Joshua McNichols reports.

JOSHUA MCNICHOLS, BYLINE: Bari Willard lives in the San Juan Islands near the border with Canada. She has cancer and needs to get from her home on Orcas Island to another island close by for treatment. So she's waiting in a line of cars with her husband, Andy, to get on the ferry. She says, these days, the ferry is often late or doesn't come at all.

BARI WILLARD: There's a lot of, I want to say, anxiety. If it comes too late, then the chemo will be too late, and I'll be too late for the ferry getting back. That's a problem.

MCNICHOLS: It could mean she can't pick up her daughter at school, or her husband might have to shift his hours so he's working until midnight at his custodian job. Today, the boat came and got her there on time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning. Now arriving Friday Harbor.

MCNICHOLS: But the ferry service canceled over 4,000 sailings in 2023. The reason is that a perfect storm of aging ferry boats and pandemic crew retirements has created a crisis. The seed was planted about 25 years ago when an anti-tax initiative resulted in a slashed ferry budget. That's, according to Steve Nevey, the head of Washington State Ferries.

STEVE NEVEY: And since then, this system's just been chronically underfunded.

MCNICHOLS: That means there wasn't enough money to hire and train new crew members as older crew reached retirement age.

NEVEY: And then the pandemic accelerated that, right? A lot of people decided, I'm retirement eligible and I don't want to deal with this pandemic stuff, so I'm going to retire now and be done.

MCNICHOLS: So when a crew member calls in sick, an entire ferry run can get canceled. The money issue affects infrastructure, too.

NEVEY: We haven't had funding to be able to build new boats at the pace we need to be building new boats.

MCNICHOLS: The aging boats break down, leading to huge delays. In waterfront cities like Seattle, Bremerton and Everett, people still have the option of driving the long way around the Puget Sound, which can add a hundred miles to someone's commute. But in the San Juan Islands, that's not possible. They can't be reached from the mainland by roads. Rancher Lori Ann David can't get her pigs to slaughter.

LORI ANN DAVID: Get a bunch of animals in a pen ready for harvest, and then there's no ferry to bring the truck over.

MCNICHOLS: Grocery store worker Raheen Fielder (ph) can't get to his husband in Canada.

RAHEEN FIELDER: We have a long-distance relationship that became a lot longer distance.

MCNICHOLS: San Juan County's public defender, Alex Frix, says sometimes a juror from another island can't make it to trial.

ALEX FRIX: If enough of your jurors were from not San Juan Island, then you have the problem of potentially having to declare a mistrial.

MCNICHOLS: Recently, the state legislature in Washington authorized a crew hiring spree, which seems to be helping. During the slow winter months of this year, canceled sailings were down 60% compared to last summer. But when it comes to aging ferry infrastructure, it's a more complex picture.

GREG NANCE: We are turning the tide here, but it's going to be a multiyear process. There's a lot of pain and hardship ahead.

MCNICHOLS: Greg Nance is a state legislator representing the waterfront communities of Bremerton and Bainbridge Island. He says the legislature has released money to pay for five new boats, which should start rolling out in 2028. But the system is going to need 11 more boats in the next decade and a half. Nance says, that'll cost way more than Washington state can pay for alone.

NANCE: We need a federal policy and federal funding to rebuild American shipbuilding, to support a maritime workforce across the country and then to get our ferry networks back up and floating into the future.

MCNICHOLS: Nance says officials in Washington state have been looking for ways to strengthen a network of elected leaders across the country who also have aging ferry fleets in their jurisdictions, places like Florida, New York and the Great Lakes.

NANCE: As I've learned more about different ferry networks, we're all way short of what we need.

MCNICHOLS: Nance says he hopes that by advocating together, they can get more federal funding. For NPR News, I'm Joshua McNichols in the San Juan Islands.

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Joshua McNichols
Joshua “took the long way” to radio, working in architecture firms for over a decade before pursuing his passion for public radio and writing in 2007. By "long way," he means he's also been a writer, bicycle courier, commercial fisherman, bed-and-breakfast cook, carpenter, landscaper, and stained glass salesman. He’s detailed animal enclosures to prevent jaguars from escaping the Miami Zoo. Once, while managing a construction site in Athens, Greece, he was given a noogie by an Albanian civil war refugee in his employ. “You do not tell those guys how to place stucco,” he said. All of which has no doubt made him the story-teller he is today. [Copyright 2024 KUOW]