T&I Hearing Examines Ferry Services and Federal Subsidies

On September 28, T&I’s Highways and Transit Subcommittee held a hearing, titled “Examining the Role of Ferries in Improving Mobility.” On a subcommittee where most matters are starkly divided on party lines, this was a bipartisan, civil hearing.

Witnesses included:

  • Patty Rubstello, Assistant Secretary, Washington State Department of Transportation, Ferries Division
  • Seamus Murphy, Executive Director, San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA)
  • Frank J. Principi, Chair, M-495 Regional Commuter Ferry Group
  • Kyle Godar, County Engineer, Calhoun County Highway Department (Illinois)

Democrats generally spoke in favor of zero-emission ferries and a few criticized the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIB) for scaling back ferry funding compared to Rep. DeFazio’s (D-OR) INVEST Act. Only three Republicans participated in the hearing, and save for a few moments (like when Rep. Tim Burchett (R-TN) prodded Murphy, wanting him to reveal that taxpayers were propping up the San Francisco ferries, but Murphy replied that non-farebox revenue largely came from Bay Area bridge tolls), all participants were largely in agreement. This hearing is within Highways and Transit Subcommittee jurisdiction because ferry programs are funded by the FHWA and FTA.

Transitioning to low- and zero-emission ferries and retrofitting old boats was a dominant theme in this hearing. Both Rubstello and Murphy expressed interest in electrifying their fleets. Rubstello explained that three of her ferries are due to be renewed, so it would make sense to replace these with electric or hybrid vessels. Full fleet electrification will not come tomorrow, though. Murphy explained that WETA could begin to phase in electric ferries within the next few years, though Rubstello clarified that it will take about 20 years to transition to a fully-hybrid fleet.

Rubstello also emphasized that investing in shoreside power is essential. Electric ships need port-side charging infrastructure, and federal funding needs to include provisions for charging infrastructure. Another concern with electric vessels is the charging time, as Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) was concerned about schedule changes due to charging demands. Murphy acknowledged that it is possible but depends on charging capacity: rapid shoreside chargers are more expensive but would not sacrifice frequency of trips. To electrify fleets, Murphy noted the need for robust federal funding to match local, regional, and state sources, as well as continued industry innovation so electric boats can compete with the length of trips done by diesel vessels.

Another common sentiment echoed by Democrats was frustration with BIB funding. The bipartisan bill in Section 71103 includes $1.2 billion for public ferries but dedicates $1 billion to rural ferries for routes over 50 miles. According to Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA), only about four ferry services in the whole country are eligible for funding, and others criticized this strict criterion as being more-or-less earmarked for Alaska, not by coincidence as Rep. Lisa Mukowski (R-AK) was one of the bipartisan negotiators. This funding will not significantly increase for urban, short-haul ferries. If passed, WETA will receive less than $1 million a year from the FHWA funding, a paltry amount considering one boat costs $4-25 million. Rep. Huffman noted that Alaska is estimated to receive $12 million annually, though FTA has not released a formal estimate. Also, $1.25 billion for the existing FTA 5307 ferry program was left out of the BIB due to an oversight – Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) filed a technical corrections amendment that would have corrected this, but it was not passed by the Senate.

Witnesses emphasized the importance of connecting port terminals to transit. Rubstello noted successful examples in Washington where they created transit hubs at urban ferry terminals so passengers could disembark from the ferry and get on a bus or light rail. Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) noted similar successes in New Jersey, where terminals for the New York ferries have light rail stops. Murphy revealed WETA has worked with private company’s shuttles as well as TNCs to help solve the first and last mile commutes. Principi spoke of his M-495 project that aimed to connect dense developments, such as transit-oriented developments along the waterfront, military bases, and DCA, to each other, saying that transit connections in dense areas will similarly be a large reason for the project’s success.

Unsurprisingly, witnesses and Representatives called for more federal funding for ferries. Godar, a constituent of Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and director of Calhoun County’s highways, spoke about the difficulties he faced in securing federal funding. The road to the ferry floods so they needed to raise it two feet, but this is not eligible for federal ferry funding as the road is not directly ferry-related. In addition, the ferry started as a private operation and has shifted to dual public and private ownership. These two characteristics rendered the ferry ineligible for needed federal funding, leading Rep. Davis to urge the federal government to reconsider the eligibility requirements. In addition, Principi advocated for PPP ferry models, noting that private financing can guarantee the high operating subsidies for fuel and labor as well as help with preliminary funding and the governance structure models.

While this hearing was supposed to focus on how ferries improve mobility, the broader discussion was about different issues associated with ferries. Yet, the affordability of ferries came up a few times as rides typically cost more than the average transit ticket. To lessen this problem, after the peak pandemic period of low ridership, Murphy reduced WETA fares to make it more competitive with other modes. Rubstello similarly hopes to reinstate a pre-pandemic program reduced fare program. Rubstello also framed the Washington ferries as being a social justice concern: particularly for people living on remote islands only served by ferries, it is essential that ferries provide service so people can get to work.

Ferries work well in places such as islands and peninsulas without existing bridge infrastructure. Ferries can also be a solution in dense areas where there is high road and bridge congestion (though there was curiously no mention of metros in this hearing). Sometimes, ferries can be the cheapest and easiest commute option – though this is rare.

Ferry funding in the BIB is limited, and with so much unofficially dedicated to Alaska, there is little left to fund short-haul, urban services. Adding the existing FTA grants back into the BIB would be one place to start (though the Sinema amendment did not pass), but this hearing made it clear that in the future, FTA and FHWA must look to balance the needs of rural and urban ferries.


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