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Troubled Washington ferry system becomes an issue in the governors race

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(The Center Square) – Washington Republican candidate for governor Dave Reichert is blasting Gov. Jay Inslee over ongoing issues plaguing Washington State Ferries.

“With nearly 40% of the vessels in the Washington State Ferries fleet out of service, I’m calling on Inslee to take immediate action on the mismanaged nightmare that happened on your watch,” a news release from Reichert’s campaign said.

The news release went on to say, “The current administration has decided to just let the ferry system deteriorate purposefully because they have planned to transfer to electric ferries.”

Reichert elaborated in speaking with The Center Square on Thursday.

“The push to electric ferries puts us out now so many years and people on the islands can’t wait that long,” he said of the ferry-dependent San Juan Islands.

He went on to observe, “We can put clean-burning diesel ferries and build those out and get them on the route and bring back the ferry system to full health as quickly as we can, and we can pretty easily transition those clean-burning diesel ferries to electric, if that’s the direction we decide to go in a few years, but of course there could be even cleaner energies in a few years, too.”

Reichert pointed to the shortage of ferry workers at the heart of the agency’s struggle with reliability.

“The employees who were fired during the pandemic is a big part of that, and we need to rehire workers who would like their jobs back,” he said.

In October 2021, more than 400 Washington State Department of Transportation employees were fired for not complying with Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The largest loss was within Washington State Ferries, which lost 132 employees – 121 of those as separations and 11 as retirements.

Reichert recalled speaking with a former employee who considered going back to her position after Washington State Ferries offered to rehire workers who lost their jobs for refusing to get vaccinated.

“One ferry worker on the San Juan Island run told me she was offered her job back, but at a lower paid position,” he said, adding she informed the agency she wanted to come back to her previous position with the same pay as when she left.

“She was refused that, and she shared with me she knows this happened with other ferry employees also,” Reichert said. “The job they had, they deserve to have it back.”

He concluded, “We’re almost like a third world country with people standing around waiting for the ferries.”

Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the frontrunning Democratic candidate for governor, has recently said he, too, supports the construction of at least two diesel powered ferries to remedy the immediate crisis, adding that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to the Inslee administration when it comes to the ferry system.

“The end goal is to electrify the fleet but what’s become clear is we’ve got a crisis,” Ferguson told The Seattle Times. “We’ve got to treat it like a crisis. Half measures won’t cut it.”

He denied his stance signals a retreat from his party’s aggressive agenda on climate change.

“It’s recognition that different actions are needed for the sake of those living on islands who are reliant on ferries,” Ferguson said.

Washington State Ferries is the largest ferry system in the the U.S.

The Center Square reached out to Inslee’s office and the Ferguson campaign for comment but did not receive a response.