State Government: No ‘implementation’ funds this year for privately-run water taxi service in San Juans

By Jeff Noedel,

CNL2 News Service

Washington State Rep. Alex Ramel (D-40) has confirmed for CNL2 TV that no “implementation funds” for Community Water Taxi, or any privately-run walk-on passenger service in San Juan County, are written into either the House or Senate transportation appropriation bills being reconciled for anticipated passage and signing by Governor Jay Inslee.

However, the House and Senate bills propose spending $500,000 or $600,000 respectively on a study of future passenger ferry service for multiple routes, with special emphasis on the San Juans.

Interim reports from the study would be required in time to impact the major 2025 biennial legislative session (interim reports due Oct. 30 in the House bill; Dec. 31 in the Senate bill). In the State of Washington, the biggest legislative policy decisions are made in the beginning of each two-year session.

But both studies envisioned in the House version and the Senate version call for delivery of the final study in June 2025, after the pivotal biennial session has ended. Best case, if the legislature and new Governor acted on an unfinished study, a passenger only service could start to be built later in 2025. Worst case, a walk-on service would not be funded by Olympia until 2026. And it would still have to be built, either by WSF or a third party.


The final bill, which is being reconciled by House and Senate negotiators, is on track to deliver $3.1 million in additional water taxi runs between Vashon Island and Downtown Seattle. The passenger ferry system that serves Vashon is run by King County.

And to mitigate suffering on WSF’s Bremerton route, the legislature is planning to send up to $5 million for extra walk-on ferry sailings for the Kitsap Fast Ferries, operated by Kitsap Transit.

While WSF customers on Vashon and Bremerton have endured plenty due to canceled sailings and one-boat service, respectively, WSF failures in San Juan County are as bad or worse.

So why is the state poised to send $3.1 million to bolster Vashon service, and up to $5 million to bolster Bremerton service, while sending nothing to bolster San Juans’ privately-run inter-island service?

One reason is that unlike King and Kitsap Counties, smaller, remote San Juan County government doesn’t operate a passenger ferry service.

Long before WSF’s woes, King and Kitsap County fast ferry services were created to serve Seattle suburban commuters. Speed and convenience were the motivators.

For the decades when WSF was reliable, there was simply no need for San Juan County to make the heavy lift to create a county-run service that would duplicate the drive-on service already operated by WSF.

Plus, before WSF’s crisis-level meltdown of service in the San Juans, it is doubtful a walk-on service here would even have enough customers to be anything but a drain on County finances.

While walk-on ferry service that delivers workers at the doorsteps of Seattle employers for residents of the huge counties of King and Kitsap, ferry service run by rural counties, including Skagit and Whatcom Counties is a far more challenging financially.

Walk-on ferry service works for thousands of Seattle suburbanites who can walk-off a boat and walk or quickly hop a bus or light rail train to work. But passenger-only ferries for rural areas make less sense. The ferries that Skagit County (Guemes Island Ferry) and Whatcom County (Lummi Island Ferry) governments operate are drive-on ferries. And Skagit and Whatcom Counties are much larger than San Juan County, with more financial resources.

For these reasons and others, San Juan County never put a priority on forming its own official walk-on fast ferry — or slow ferry — or any kind of ferry service.

The official study could eventually result in inter-island water taxi service in San Juan County that is tied to WSF, San Juan County government, a port, or another agency. The study could, ironically, recommend partnering with a private firm. But the creation of such a service won’t begin until the end of 2024 or quite possibly later.