$3.1 million for additional water taxi runs between Downtown Seattle and Vashon Island is set to be allocated by the legislature to make up for lost state ferry service. (Ryan Packer)

Vashon Island residents and visitors who have been frustrated with service levels on Washington State Ferries look to have an additional mobility option soon, thanks to help from the Washington State Legislature. The state House and Senate both include an allocation of $3.1 million to add new runs on King County’s water taxi between Downtown Seattle and north Vashon Island in their respective supplemental transportation budget proposals.

Currently, King County operates limited passenger ferry service to Vashon Island from Pier 50, compared to all-day service to West Seattle. The new funding is specifically directed to go toward adding mid-day trips on weekdays, though exact service levels that the additional funding would generate aren’t yet known.

Additional runs to Vashon Island directly from downtown Seattle provide connections to King County’s Metro’s Routes 118 and 119 that run the length of Vashon and Maury islands. (King County)

Since 2021, Washington State Ferries (WSF) has been operating reduced service, with just two boats compared to the prior three, on its route between north Vashon, Fauntleroy in West Seattle, and Southworth on the Kitsap Peninsula. Due to delays in procuring new ferry boats, WSF doesn’t expect to be able to restore the route’s third boat until at least 2028, according to the service contingency plan the agency released early this year. Three-boat service may return for seasonal periods, according to the plan, but WSF isn’t making any promises.

The added funding for King County was pushed for by Representative Emily Alvarado, of the 34th District, which includes West Seattle and Vashon Island. “This is a priority issue for me,” Rep. Alvarado told Vashon Island residents at a forum last fall, as reported by the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber. “You really do deserve reliability and predictability.” 

In addition to the reduced schedule, nearly one in five trips (18.1%) on the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route in fiscal year 2023 were late. That rate puts the route near the bottom of the list when it comes to on-time performance at WSF, ahead of just two routes: the San Juan route (32.7% late) and Seattle-Bainbridge Island (21.9% late). According to WSF, the reduced frequencies on the route are leading to overcrowded boats, creating longer dwell times and late departures. Those delays tend to cascade, leading to unpredictability.

Earlier this month, newly elected King County Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who also represents Vashon Island, wrote to legislative leaders in support of Alvarado’s funding request.

“This funding will help to alleviate some of the challenges faced by the Vashon Island community due to reduced ferry service over the last two years, and will support the island’s connections to the mainland that are vital to Vashon’s public health and local economy,” Mosqueda wrote. “This proposal has been coordinated with King County, and we have the available boats and crew to provide the additional service at the requested funding level.”

Mosqueda credited advocacy from the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce and Islanders for Ferry Action, a group of Vashon residents who compiled a report last fall that called for a range of solutions to alleviate the impact of reduced ferry service, including “multi-agency collaboration” to bring more water taxis to the island.

“Every week — sometimes daily — our ferry routes get canceled or delayed with little or no warning. This affects every island resident. But the burden falls disproportionately on our children, the elderly, the chronically ill, small businesses, and people experiencing socioeconomic insecurity,” the group’s report reads. “We can’t wait years for WSF to build more boats and train more skilled captains, mates and engineers. We, and the millions of other Washington residents and visitors who rely on the Washington State Ferries, need relief now.”

County Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who met with representatives from the Vashon Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, credited their advocacy with the state’s forthcoming budget allocation for more water taxi service. (Teresa Mosqueda’s office)

Last year, King County announced that it would be maintaining full service levels on its West Seattle to Downtown water taxi route year-round, a move that allows them to retain staff on a more consistent schedule. But until this allocation in the state budget, there were no signs that King County was getting ready to expand service on its Vashon Island route.

State funding for the King County water taxi builds on a successful precedent. Kitsap Transit started receiving state funds to increase passenger ferry service between Bremerton and Seattle in 2022, while WSF remains unable to add back a second boat on that route’s schedule. Both proposed transportation budgets from this year would boost the amount provided for that service up to $5 million, ensuring that those extra runs stay in place indefinitely.

While the biggest beneficiaries of the new Vashon to Downtown Seattle trips will be Vashon residents, the additional service is also set to allow Seattle residents to access Vashon Island for more day trips. Utilizing King County Metro Routes 118 and 119 to circumnavigate the island, car-free travelers can take advantage of easier access to places like Maury Island Marine Park, Island Center Forest, and countless other trailheads.

The budget allocation isn’t official until it’s fully passed the state legislature and signed by Governor Jay Inslee, set to happen in the days following the end of the legislative session on March 7.

Article Author

Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.