Washington ferries are still floating back to pre-pandemic service levels

Washington ferries are still floating back to pre-pandemic service levels
Washington ferries are still floating back to pre-pandemic service levels

Washington state’s ferry system now has four of its eight routes back to pre-pandemic service levels.

But not the Anacortes to Sidney, BC, run. The state’s only international route won’t return until 2030 at the earliest. Only one ferry is certified to make that trip, and that vessel is needed in Puget Sound in the meantime.

“To sail internationally, and it’s our only international route, you need specialized equipment on the boat,” said Ian Sterling, spokesman for Washington State Ferries. “We only have one boat now, the Chelan, that is allowed to run it, and we need that boat for domestic service,”

“It’s a great route, it’s our longest route, it’s arguably our most beautiful route, but it’s not a route that gets a lot of riders compared to the core Puget Sound routes. If you talk to people in Anacortes and San Juan- the islands, they will want to see that service works normally instead of going up to Canada, which is nice to have, but not a must-have at this point.”

Washington State Ferries has slowed rebuilding service after pandemic slowdowns reduced ridership along with the number of boats serving each run. Before the pandemic, the system handled about 24 million to 25 million riders each year. In 2022, 17 million people boarded the ferries.

Still, riders are slowly coming back, Sterling said. Vehicle ridership is almost at pre-pandemic levels for some routes. However, foot traffic is still low.

“Like downtown Seattle, the big commuter boats out of Bainbridge Island and Bremerton, we had a couple thousand people every morning, on every sailing, we just don’t see that anymore. Even though it’s recovering, it’s not what it was.”

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The ferries also continue to deal with a shortage of maritime workers, and the state competes with private companies for the potential hires.

“We’re making progress, we’re still not where we need to be,” Sterling said of hiring new ferry workers. “So if you’re looking for a job, State Ferries is a great place to be, if you don’t want to sit at a desk all day; you get the best view in Puget Sound.”

Sterling adds that the agency is also working with a smaller fleet than in previous years – currently 21 ships. The agency is eagerly awaiting new boats approved by state officials. Hybrid ferries, which can sometimes run solely on electricity, are slated to come to Puget Sound.

Ferry routes are being restored, but some are still waiting

As for other ferry routes, the busy Edmonds-Kingston route resumed its two-boat service last month after many months with a single ferry.

The “Triangle Route” (Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth) will return to three-boat weekday service this spring.

Meanwhile, the Bremerton riders will have to wait until the fall to get two boats back for the connection to Seattle.

Port Townsend and Coupeville will have to wait until next year to regain service last seen before the pandemic.

Dyer Oxley contributed to this report.

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