A ferry crosses Puget Sound
The ferry Tokitae crosses Puget Sound during the sixth full month of the coronavirus pandemic (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Vot­ers in Wash­ing­ton are open to increas­ing statewide tax­es to ensure that the state’s icon­ic fer­ry sys­tem can rebound from decades of aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures and under­fund­ing, a poll recent­ly con­duct­ed for the North­west Pro­gres­sive has found.

51% of like­ly 2022 vot­ers sur­veyed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for NPI two months ago said they would sup­port increas­ing the fees they pay annu­al­ly to renew their vehi­cles’ car tabs by ten dol­lars to pro­vide Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ries with sta­ble, ded­i­cat­ed fund­ing. 44% said they were opposed, while 6% were not sure.

51% might not sound like a large per­cent­age, but as always, con­text mat­ters. This ques­tion vot­ers were asked was whether they’d sup­port res­cu­ing fer­ries with a rev­enue mech­a­nism that many have vot­ed repeat­ed­ly to cut when giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do so by Tim Eyman, the state’s dis­hon­est, well known pur­vey­or of destruc­tive ini­tia­tives, who is fierce­ly opposed to using vehi­cle fees and motor vehi­cle excise tax­es to fund mul­ti­modal trans­porta­tion infrastructure.

The repeat­ed pas­sage of Eyman’s deceit­ful­ly word­ed bal­lot mea­sures has left many reporters and leg­is­la­tors with the impres­sion that vot­ers are total­ly, unequiv­o­cal­ly opposed to any car tab increase, regard­less of the pur­pose for doing so. But the find­ing we’re releas­ing today shows that when vot­ers under­stand how their dol­lars will be invest­ed, a major­i­ty are will­ing to pay.

It just goes to show, once again, that the answers you get depend on the ques­tions you ask. Vot­ers appre­ci­ate under­stand­ing where their tax dol­lars go.

Here’s the exact text of the ques­tion we asked and the answers we received:

QUESTION: Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ries lacks sta­ble, ded­i­cat­ed fund­ing to fund its oper­a­tions and pur­chase new fer­ry­boats, which has result­ed in per­sis­tent crew and boat short­ages, main­te­nance prob­lems, and can­celed sail­ings. Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose or strong­ly oppose increas­ing the fees paid when you renew your car tabs every year by ten dol­lars to pro­vide Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ries with sta­ble, ded­i­cat­ed funding?


  • Sup­port: 51% 
    • Strong­ly sup­port: 25%
    • Some­what sup­port: 26%
  • Oppose: 44%
    • Some­what oppose: 13%
    • Strong­ly oppose: 31%
  • Not sure: 6%
Ferry funding poll finding
Visu­al­iza­tion of NPI’s fer­ry fund­ing poll finding

Our sur­vey of 909 like­ly 2022 Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers was in the field from Wednes­day, Novem­ber 10th through Thurs­day, Novem­ber 11th, 2021.

It uti­lizes a blend­ed method­ol­o­gy, with auto­mat­ed phone calls to land­lines (50%) and text mes­sage answers from cell phone only respon­dents (50%).

The poll was con­duct­ed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute and has a mar­gin of error of +/- 3.3% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

More infor­ma­tion about the survey’s method­ol­o­gy is avail­able here.

Pri­or to 2000, in the days before Eyman’s I‑695 was fool­ish­ly imple­ment­ed by Gov­er­nor Gary Locke and the Leg­is­la­ture, vehi­cle fees pro­vid­ed a sig­nif­i­cant amount of fund­ing for Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ries, as the 40th Dis­tric­t’s leg­isla­tive del­e­ga­tion observed in an Octo­ber 5th let­ter to their con­stituents:

The pas­sage of I‑695 in 1999 result­ed in a WSF loss of approx­i­mate­ly 25% of its ded­i­cat­ed oper­at­ing bud­get and 75% of its ded­i­cat­ed cap­i­tal. Con­se­quent­ly, no new ves­sels were built for an entire decade, 2000–2010. This build­ing drought has sad­dled WSF with an aging fleet. The 2040 Long Range Plan strat­e­gy calls for robust ves­sel replace­ment over the next 19 years to main­tain cur­rent ser­vice lev­els. Addi­tion­al­ly, WSF has con­sis­tent­ly been under­fund­ed for vital ves­sel main­te­nance and preser­va­tion work.

– Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Debra Lekanoff, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Alex Ramel, and Sen­a­tor Liz Lovelett (all D‑40th Dis­trict: Bellingham/Whatcom Coun­ty, San Juan Coun­ty, and Skag­it County)

“Fer­ry oper­a­tions, bud­get­ed at $541 mil­lion in 2021–23, aren’t mas­sive­ly sub­si­dized,” not­ed vet­er­an Seat­tle Times reporter Mike Lind­blom in a Novem­ber 22nd sto­ry on Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ries’ fund­ing cri­sis.

“Dri­vers and pas­sen­gers cov­er 75% to 80% through fares, which increased last month. Nonusers spent $102.6 mil­lion toward fer­ry oper­a­tions in 2019–21, equiv­a­lent to 1.33 cents per gal­lon of gas tax and 1% of license fees. Anoth­er $141 mil­lion in fed­er­al COVID-relief mon­ey back­filled a recent $100 mil­lion loss of tick­et sales. Boats and facil­i­ties will receive $505 mil­lion in 2021–23, pre­dom­i­nant­ly state and fed­er­al dol­lars from nonpassengers.”

Before 2021’s mass can­cel­la­tions, as Lind­blom’s sto­ry notes, the Sen­ate had float­ed putting $200 mil­lion into fer­ry oper­a­tions and $1.24 bil­lion for ves­sels, ter­mi­nals, and elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. But WSF’s needs go beyond that.

“I think we have to con­sid­er more,” House Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee Chair Jake Fey (D‑27th Dis­trict: Taco­ma) told Lind­blom.

“Obvi­ous­ly the strug­gle is, it’s not the only thing out there.”

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Fey is cor­rect on both counts. Our trans­porta­tion needs are sub­stan­tial. But the last two years have demon­strat­ed that WSF’s strat­e­gy of limp­ing along and rely­ing on fare rev­enue to pay the costs asso­ci­at­ed with run­ning fer­ries isn’t sus­tain­able. A diver­si­fied long-term fund­ing mod­el is needed.

What should that fund­ing mod­el be? It’s a ques­tion leg­is­la­tors will undoubt­ed­ly be think­ing about this after­noon as the House and Sen­ate Trans­porta­tion com­mit­tees hold work ses­sions to exam­ine Wash­ing­ton’s mobil­i­ty challenges.

A ferry crosses Puget Sound
The fer­ry Tok­i­tae cross­es Puget Sound dur­ing the sixth full month of the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Last month, Gov­er­nor Inslee asked leg­is­la­tors to put more mon­ey into our ferries.

“Inslee’s pro­posed 2021–2023 cap­i­tal bud­get for Wash­ing­ton State Fer­ries rep­re­sents a 26% increase ($131 mil­lion), com­pared with the cur­rent two-year bud­get ($505 mil­lion),” Andrew Engel­son not­ed last week in a piece for Cross­cut.

“If unspent mon­ey from the 2019–2021 bien­ni­um is added to that fig­ure, Inslee’s fer­ry sys­tem cap­i­tal bud­get rep­re­sents a 44% boost to be spent on new fer­ries and ter­mi­nals. This includes $91 mil­lion that’s part of Inslee’s new cli­mate agen­da, which would pay for two addi­tion­al elec­tric hybrid fer­ries and ter­mi­nal electrification.”

The gov­er­nor’s pro­pos­al is a good start­ing point.

But espe­cial­ly giv­en that fare rev­enue will not work as a crutch for anoth­er twen­ty years, we must do more. Fer­ries need at least one sta­ble source of ded­i­cat­ed fund­ing to recov­er from decades of aus­ter­i­ty. And there aren’t a lot of rev­enue mech­a­nisms read­i­ly avail­able to leg­is­la­tors that meet that criteria.

Thanks to our polling, though, we know there’s at least one approach that a major­i­ty of vot­ers are will­ing to accept: rais­ing vehi­cle fees by a mod­est amount to allow WSF to deal with its staffing prob­lems and cap­i­tal con­struc­tion needs.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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2 replies on “A majority of Washington voters are willing to raise vehicle fees by $10/year to fund ferries”

  1. Let the peo­ple who use it pay for it. Raise the fer­ry prices to cov­er the costs incurred. Why should I have to pay extra for some­one else’s trans­porta­tion? They took that on them­selves when they moved to where they live.

    1. That approach has already been tried and it is failing. 

      Did­n’t you read the post? Fer­ries most­ly rely on fare rev­enue already.

      All forms of trans­porta­tion are sub­si­dized. The self-cen­tered notion of “why should I have to pay extra for some­one else’s trans­porta­tion” is at odds with the val­ues this coun­try and state were found­ed on. As Amer­i­cans, as Wash­ing­to­ni­ans, we look out for each oth­er. We pool our resources to get things done. None of us use all of the essen­tial pub­lic ser­vices that we col­lec­tive­ly fund with our tax dol­lars, but all of us use some of them. 

      Imag­ine if every­one had your atti­tude. Do you think there’d be enough mon­ey to fund roads, bridges, tran­sit, etc. in your area?

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