Washington State Ferry System Sucks

This week, the Tacoma/Tahlequah ferry that runs from the south end of Vashon Island to Tacoma was stopped for three days because a ferry broke down and, since the ferries are currently undergoing maintenance (all at the same time), there was no ferry to replace it. So they just stopped running it. All that ferry traffic had to leave from the north end of the island, which was too much traffic for the ferries and that caused delays of up to 90 minutes. The Tahlequah ferry came back today, Thursday, but with a smaller ferry, causing more delays for those riders.

The Washington State Ferry system is a mess. Prices continue to go up and service continues to go down. It’s a perfect example of how poorly government-run businesses work. How did we get this way? The Seattle Weekly this week has “an article that explains”:http://seattleweekly.com/2008-03-05/news/how-puget-sound-s-last-pirate-gave-us-a-creaking-sinking-ferry-system.php. Long story short, a businessman who ran the private ferry system the first half of the 20th Century was prevented by the government from raising fares to cover his costs, so he sold the ferries to the idiots in the Seattle government who believed they could run them more efficiently and not have to raise fares. Today, it costs us $18 to get to the island ($21 in the peak summer season) and the fares go up and up and up and they’re still losing money running the ferries.

Even more crazy, the government thought the ferries would be temporary because Puget Sound would have a network of bridges within a few years. That never happened and it never seems to even be considered anymore even though the Evergreen Freedom Foundation says it would “save Washington State tax-payers $7.3 billion”:http://www.effwa.org/transportation/alternate_puget_sound_solution.php. Why not? Because the growth-fearing Vashon Island residents, myself excluded, “don’t want a bridge”:http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CEEDA1138F932A25750C0A964958260.

That was 1992, though, when the economics of the ferries still seemed to be working — even though the government and the businessman who sold the ferries to it knew in the 1950s that a car ferry system was not economically viable. Because the island is so inaccessible, Vashon Island has only one (or two, depending on who you ask) good restaurants, a grocery store with monopoly pricing and higher gas prices. Yet, time and time again, the biggest complaints islanders have about Vashon is that there are not enough restaurants, the grocery store’s prices are too high and you have to go into Seattle to get cheaper gas. A bridge would solve those problems. I wonder how bad the ferries will have to get before Vashon Islanders agree that a bridge, and economic progress, can be a good thing.

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