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Washington starts nationwide search for electric ferry builders

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(The Center Square) – The The Washington State Department of Transportation is moving forward with plans to have hybrid electric ferries built rather than ones run by diesel, which some say would allow the state agency to expand its fleet more quickly.

WSDOT aims to add five more hybrid electric ferries to its existing fleet by 2030, while at the same time transition that fleet toward electricity as part of a state-wide clean energy effort. It recently announced a competitive bidding process that would allow shipyards from around the nation to submit proposals.

The decision to opt for hybrid electric over diesel ferries has proved somewhat contentious as WSDOT’s fleet continues to shrink; in 2023 alone there were more than 3,000 canceled sailings.

Gubernatorial candidates Bob Ferguson and Dave Reichert both say they would build diesel ferries, while Gov. Jay Inslee has referred to that as “braindead thinking.”

At a Monday press conference, WSDOT Assistant Secretary for State Ferries Steve Nevey said that “adding new vessels to our fleet is a key part of a multi-prong approach to restoring service levels. We share the public’s urgency in bringing these new vessels on board as quickly as possible.”

WSDOT proposal comes as the result of House Bill 1846, which directed the state agency to put out a bid allowing a shipyard to contract for up to five vessels. According to Nevey, two will be built in 2028, two more in 2029, and the final one completed in 2030. The vessels will have a 160-vehicle and 1,500-passenger capacity. The largest ferry class is the Jumbo Mark II, which can carry up to 202 vehicles and 2,499 passengers.

One of the bill’s provisions allows WSDOT to seek proposals from out-of-state bidders, a move House Transportation Chair Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said at the press conference would “accelerate our work in trying to restore more important and reliable service that will have long lasting benefits for all the residents of the state of Washington.”

The bill also allows WSDOT contract with two shipbuilders at the same time.

Fey and other state officials at the press conference defended the decision to go with electric rather than diesel. When asked by a reporter why they couldn’t go with a current diesel design, Fey said “the whole build of the ferries is embedded in state law. The first delay [is] we do not have authority legislatively to build a diesel ferry at this point in time. We’d have to go back and change the legislation. It took the entire session in 2023 to reach an agreement.”

“We crafted this ferry very specifically,” he added. “We’d have to start that all over again. It’s not just simply substituting the engines.”

WSDOT Electrification Program Administrator Matt von Ruden said that they “could not replicate those [diesel] vessels” because the federal funding that was available previously for them is not there.”

In contrast, the five new hybrid electric ferries will be entirely funded by the state.