WASHINGTON -- The cash-strapped Washington state ferry system could receive more than $200 million in federal funding over the next five years to help repair and maintain its fleet of mostly older boats and improve aging docks and terminals under legislation introduced Wednesday.
The bill, by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would provide more than $1 billion to the nation's ferry systems, with half allocated under a formula based on ridership and other factors and the rest distributed through grants and congressionally directed spending.
With the largest ferry system in the nation, Washington could receive $40 million a year under the formula. And with Murray as chairman of Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, even more might be targeted for the state.
"Every weekend when I go home I have to ride a ferry," said Murray, who lives on Whidbey Island. "I know just how critical this mode of transportation is to families in Washington state and across the country."
While the federal money will help, officials of the state's ferry system have estimated they eventually will need $3 billion to meet projected capital needs. On average, the state's ferries are 34 years old. Four boats that were 81 years old were recently retired, putting a crimp in ferry system operations.
"This funding is absolutely critical," David Moseley, director of the state ferry division, said at a press conference of the federal money Washington would receive under Murray's legislation. "This will go a long ways in meeting the needs of the ferry system."
The state's 22 ferries ply 10 routes carrying more than 23 million people a year, more than Amtrak. The ferries also carry roughly 11 million vehicles each year.
Nationwide, ferry systems in 38 states from North Carolina to Alaska carry more than 100 million passengers annually. Currently, about $67 million in federal funding for ferries is available.
Moseley said none of the federal money can be used to build new ferries for the Washington state system. State law requires that any new ferries be built in Washington state, and a legal opinion from the attorney general's office ruled out using federal funds for new boats. But Moseley said there are plenty of other things the money could be spent on, such as parts for new ferries like propulsion systems, maintaining existing boats and rehabilitating docks and terminals
The Washington Legislature has provided funding for the ferry system to build two additional boats, Moseley said. The federal funding would provide additional financial assistance, he said.
"This is a huge step forward," Moseley said.
The bill already has picked up bipartisan support with Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski as one of the original sponsors.
"This funding could help us enormously," Murkowski said at the press conference, adding that the Alaska ferry system serves more than 30 communities and operates on 3,000 miles worth of routes.
A similar measure introduced in the House by Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., already has attracted 18 co-sponsors, including some Republicans.
"For thousands of people in my district, ferries are the only way to get to work," Larsen said, adding the bill would provide a "robust investment" in the ferry system and would help spur an economic recovery.
Though the measure was introduced as a standalone bill, Murray and Larsen said it likely will be folded into a five-year transportation bill reauthorizing highway and mass transit funding. Larsen, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he already has talked with the panel's chairman, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., about ferry funding.
"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Murray said.