Early Ferry Service
Washington State Ferries came into existence with the state’s buyout of Puget Sound Navigation in 1951. Ferry service around Puget Sound has changed tremendously over the course of the last century.
Originating in the early 1900s, Puget Sound ferry service was initially provided by a number of companies using small steamers known as the “Mosquito Fleet.” By 1929, the ferry industry had consolidated into two companies: Puget Sound Navigation Company and Kitsap County Transportation Company. A strike in 1935 forced Kitsap County Transportation Company out of business and left the Puget Sound Navigation Company, commonly known as Black Ball Line, with primary control of ferry service on Puget Sound.
After World War II, increasing labor costs made private operation of the ferry system increasingly challenging. In the late 1940s, ferry workers’ labor unions succeeded in securing higher wages from the Puget Sound Navigation Company. The ferry service provider petitioned the state Highway Department to allow a 30 percent fare increase to meet new operating costs. When the state refused its request, the Puget Sound Navigation Company tied up its boats, bringing much of cross-sound ferry service to a halt.
Creation of WSF
Washington state recognized that the ferries were a lifeline for many communities and there was a need for reliable ferry service to meet growing demand. In 1951, after numerous discussions with the state Legislature over fares and service, the Puget Sound Navigation Company sold all of its terminal facilities and ferries (with the exception of the Seattle/Port Angeles/Victoria, B.C. route) for $5 million to a newly-created Washington Toll Bridge Authority, now known as Washington State Ferries (WSF).
The ferry system was originally intended to provide temporary service until a network of bridges could be built connecting the west and east sides of Puget Sound. In 1959, however, the Legislature rejected the plan to build numerous cross sound bridges. At that time, the responsibility for managing the ferry system was shared by the Toll Bridge Authority and the State Highway Commission.
The Toll Bridge Authority set fares and controlled the system’s finances, including long-term indebtedness, while the operation of the ferry system was controlled by the Highway Commission. In 1977, the two agencies were combined under the existing Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
Development of the Fleet
In its first year of service, the state-operated ferry system carried approximately four million passengers. The boats the state purchased from the Puget Sound Navigation Company included a number of steel diesel-electrics from San Francisco (the Illahee, Klickitat, Nisqually, Quinault, Enetai, and Willapa); wooden diesel-electrics including the Chetzemoka, Kehloken, and Klahanie; steamers such as San Mateo and Shasta; wooden diesel-powered boats built in the Northwest such as the Rosario, Kitsap, Crosline, Leschi, Skansonia and Vashon; and a former Great Lakes steamer, the Chippewa.
The new ferry system’s first challenge was to add boats to meet growing demands for service, relieving backups that had started occurring at terminals. Two ferries were purchased from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, the Rhododendron and the Olympic. In 1953, the state commissioned the Puget Sound Dredge and Bridge Company (subsequently Lockheed) to build the first Evergreen State-class vessel, which can carry 87 vehicles and 983 passengers. Over the next 13 years, the ferry system responded to growing demand by rebuilding and expanding the existing fleet. However, the Evergreen State-class ferries could not keep pace with the demand. The Super-class ferries Hyak, Kaleetan, Yakima and Elwha were built in 1967, each able to carry 144 cars and 2000 passengers (except the internationally-certified Elwha, which has a 1076-passenger capacity). Within several years even the Super-class ferries were unable to handle the demands of the system. To meet this need, the Jumbo-class Spokane and Walla Walla ferries were built in 1973 with a capacity of 2000 passengers and 188 vehicles. The Issaquah-class Issaquah, Kittitas, Chelan, Kitsap, Cathlamet and Sealth ferries were added in the early 1980s to improve operations and replace aging boats. These ferries each carry 1200 passengers (except the internationally-certified Chelan, which has a 1090-passenger capacity) and 124 cars (except the Sealth, which has a 90-car capacity).
The fleet expanded during the 1997/99 biennium with the arrival of the Jumbo Mark II-class vessels, Tacoma, Puyallup and Wenatchee. These vessels were built by Todd Shipyards in Seattle (subsequently Vigor Industrial). Each vessel carries 2500 passengers and 202 vehicles.
In the 2010s WSF added the Kwa-di Tabil-class vessels Chetzemoka, Salish and Kennewick to its fleet. These vessels were also built in Seattle by Vigor Industrial. Each carries 750 passengers and 64 vehicles.
When the ferry system was first purchased by the state from the Puget Sound Navigation Company, it was intended to finance itself solely through the farebox (revenues). The original bonds issued by the Toll Bridge Authority in 1951 required that the system generate net revenues. The ferry routes sustained revenues in excess of operating expenses until 1960. The entire ferry/bridge system generated net revenue until 1974 because of the financial success of the Hood Canal toll bridge.
Tax support of the ferry system began in 1957 when the state Legislature brought ferry system employees into the state retirement system. In 1959, the state Legislature created an account, funded by 25 cents per gallon of the state’s gasoline sales tax, to help pay debt service on revenue bonds issued by the Toll Bridge Authority if costs exceeded revenues. In 1960, the ferry system failed to meet the annual debt service requirements, and the ferry system received $672,000 from the state’s motor vehicle fuel tax to cover the bond payments. Additional ferry system/Hood Canal Bridge bonds were issued in 1963. However, since the early 1970s, all of the debt service payments for the ferry system bonds have come from motor vehicle fuel taxes, not from ferry system operating revenues.
Over time, Washington state has continued to provide tax support for ferry system operating and capital costs as a supplement to WSF-generated revenues from fares and other miscellaneous income. From the 1970s through the 1990s, state tax sources included a gasoline sales tax and motor vehicle registration fees. Additionally, WSF pursues federal and local funds for specific projects. The use of public funds for ferry system purposes is strictly regulated, and taxes imposed for operating and capital expenses are levied and tracked separately. The taxes used to fund operating and capital expenses have been raised over the years in order to cover growing operating and capital costs.
In 1999 Washington voters approved Initiative 695, which resulted in the loss of 20 percent of WSF's operating support and 75 percent of its dedicated capital funds. This led to fare increases, service reductions, transfers of hundreds of millions of dollars from other transportation accounts, and cost reductions at WSF totaling more than $40 million per year. WSF remains without a sustainable funding source.
WSF has been involved in the ongoing assessment of fares since 1991. Fare changes have included across-the-board fare increases to adjust for inflation and fare policy changes such as fare rounding, revised commuter discounts, and a revision to the peak season vehicle/driver surcharge.
WSF is the largest ferry system in the United States, serving eight counties within Washington and the province of British Columbia in Canada. Counties served include Pierce, King, Snohomish, Kitsap, Skagit, Island, San Juan, and Jefferson Counties. WSF’s existing system has 10 routes and 20 terminals that are served by 23 vessels. WSF carries 10.5 million vehicles and more than 23 million people annually.