Plan to replace Washington State Ferries' aging vessels remains unclear

The state's newest ferry, the Squamish, will start transporting passengers across the Puget Sound this fall. (Photo: KOMO News)

BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. -- Washington State’s newest ferry Suquamish will start caring passengers across Puget Sound starting this fall. The ferry’s completion marks the end of the Olympic class ferry project that’s been underway for 11 years.

“We’re really happy to put this last one into service,” said Amy Scarton, Assistant Secretary at Washington State Ferries. “To see them all come into service is a little bittersweet.”

At the Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility on Bainbridge Island, the Suquamish is getting fitted with proper equipment, supplies and much more. The vessel will undergo sea trials around Puget Sound for three weeks.

“So, this is boat number four," said Capt. Greg Sugden. “It’s kind of like your last kid leaving out of the nest.”

And it’s easy to understand why Sugden feels this way. He’s been part of the Olympic class ferry project since its inception. He’s helped roll out all four Olympic class vessels including the Tokitae, Samish, Chimacum and now the Suquamish. The veteran captain will return the helm at WSF since a plan to continue replacing the fleet’s aging vessels remains unclear.

“With our population increasing, we have to be able to serve the public,” said Scarton. “We can’t do that if our vessels are getting too old to run and we don’t have the vessels being built new to replace them.”

The life span of a state ferry is 60 years and right now five ferries are more than 50 years old. In a preliminary recommendation drafted by the agency, WSF suggested a minimum of five additional Olympic class vessels be built under the existing contract with Vigor Shipyard.

“We are going to ask the public once again,” said Scaron. "We heard you wanted system reliability, what do you think about this plan for new vessels? We’ll deliver the final outcome to the legislature in January."

The system is seeing record ridership. In 2017 nearly 25 million people used state ferries. That number is expected to increase this year.

Scarton says 13 vessels out of the entire fleet of 22 will need to be replaced over the next two decades. It’s up to taxpayers and state lawmakers to decide how to build new vessels to replace the iconic and old ones.

There’s a strong possibility that state lawmakers will consider how to fund these vessels as soon as January.

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