The infrastructure package boosts an unsung hero of rural transportation: ferries

For people in remote areas, ferry systems are like roads. The $1.6 billion in new money should help.
Ferries aren't just for fun—many rely on them for essential tasks, like getting to work or the doctor. Photo by Patrick Robinson on Unsplash

The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act President Biden signed into law on Monday included more than $1.6 billion for a form of transportation that many people don’t think about much: ferries. While some Americans might consider ferries to be mere pleasure cruises, boarded during vacations for voyages to remote destinations, many people around the country rely on them for everyday life. 

That daily use goes far beyond hopping the Staten Island Ferry to get to jobs in Manhattan. People who live in remote locations in Southeast Alaska or down the Aleutian Islands often have no other options, save perhaps flights that are weather dependent and expensive. And if they want to transport their car, ferries are the only way to go.

“Ferries are part of our road system,” says Douglas Olerud, mayor of Haines, Alaska. Residents rely on them to go to their jobs or to get to doctor appointments, surgeries, and chemo or other life-saving treatments. High school students take the ferry to compete in tournaments. Add in COVID restrictions during the pandemic and, says Olerud, “a lot of people feel trapped.”

While every state has roads, just 37 states have ferries, for a total of 200 ferry systems. Yes, even the landlocked midwest has ferries that cross the Mississippi River and service some of the Great Lakes.

Overall, ferry systems aren’t in horrific shape. Well, not all of them at least. But for communities that rely on ferries, the problems of aging fleets, lack of funding, and staff shortages are huge. Many people live in remote communities cut off from the road system or, of course, on islands. In those cases, there’s often no other choice but to wait for the next ferry to show up.

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So news that the infrastructure bill would send millions toward reviving existing ferries and building new ones was welcomed in areas that rely on boats the most. The specifics: $1 billion for new essential ferry services for rural areas; $337 million for new ferries and ferry terminal facilities; and $250 million for a pilot project for electric or low-carbon emission fuel ferries. In addition, Alaska will be able to apply Federal-aid highway funds to the Alaska Marine Highway System (the formal name for the state ferries) for operations and repairs.

While ferry ridership across the nation took a pandemic hit and some systems lost 40 to 50 percent of their passengers, according to Workboat magazine, numbers are up again since workers began returning to offices.

But ferries are experiencing the same employee drought felt across most industries. In October, Washington State Ferries cut sailings on some routes in half, according to the Seattle Times. Days later, the paper’s editorial board didn’t mince words in a headline that declared: “Washingtonians deserve a reliable, resilient ferry system.” While COVID-19 and the staff shortages definitely played into the sailing cutbacks, the piece made it clear that the system was also “underfunded and antiquated,” a huge issue considering that it is “the only viable transportation option for many Washingtonians.”

My other car is a ferry

Julie Marie Anderson, a Haines, Alaska-based nurse, ended up switching jobs because the Alaska State Ferry system was too unreliable. Aging boats and state budget cuts left Anderson and many others who relied on the system in a constant game of wondering: will the boat show or not? 

Before Anderson finally gave up and took a job that didn’t rely as much on hitting the water to get to work, she spent her working hours in the state capital of Juneau. The weekly trip was mostly ok during the summer when tourists also clamored for ferry space, but fall and winter sailings were on a limited schedule. Then cutbacks left Haines with just one ferry sailing option each week, if even that often

No, driving was not an option. Haines, in Southeast Alaska (where most Alaska cruises sail through), is on the road system, but the Alaska state capital of Juneau is not. So you can drive out of Haines, but Juneau, some 93 miles away, is only accessible by water or air. And the only way to connect to most other parts of the U.S. by car from Haines is through Canada (an option that was completely cut off during most of the pandemic). 

And, of course, there’s that famously-changeable Alaskan weather. “You can go 10 or 12 days where it’s not flyable between Haines and Juneau,” says Olerud.

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When the ferry went AWOL, a local tour company, Allen Marine, filled in as much as possible with charter trips, but their boats can’t take cars—a big problem for people who might spend a week in another town for medical appointments or work. Add car rental in towns that don’t have huge rental fleets to nightly hotel rooms and the expenses add up quickly. (Though Anderson remains grateful nonetheless; when travel options to work are limited, people in remote communities know better than to thumb their nose at those who step in to help.) 

Anderson still takes the ferry for Juneau trips to teach nursing courses that require  “a lot of equipment that is cost-prohibitive to fly with,” she says, but now works largely in Haines.

In short: ferries are important for people’s livelihoods, and the money from the infrastructure package, if spent properly, should make ferry systems more consistent, reliable, and could even increase the number of sailings. However, Mayor Olerud says past spending errors by the Alaska Marine Highway System don’t necessarily “give us a lot of optimism that the money is going to be spent in the best way to make sure [the system is] going to be sustainable long term.”

Cleaner sailing in the future?

With a switch to electric cars really starting to take shape around the United States, will electric ferries follow? Maybe—but it’s going to be a slow process. 

Ferries often run for decades and the cost for a new boat can run eight or nine digits. But the payoff could, eventually, be huge for both the environment and the health of the people who live in ferry communities. The infrastructure law earmarks $250 million for an electric or low-emissions ferry pilot program that could, hopefully, make cleaner ferries top of mind in more states. 

The bill doesn’t detail exact locations for the pilot programs but it’s likely that one will be in Alaska. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski was a big driver of the infrastructure bill, which states that at least one pilot will be “conducted in the state with the most Marine Highway System miles.” Though Washington State has the largest ferry system, Alaska owns the top spot when it comes to marine highway miles (3,100 total with most of them in Southeast Alaska).

The International Council on Clean Transportation studied China’s coastal fleet where there is “an abundance of shore power,” says Elise Georgeoff, an associate researcher with ICCT’s marine team and one of the study’s authors.

The study says that policymakers thinking about looking into electric ferries should focus on “smaller ships and shorter legs.” In the China coastal study, the researchers found that electric passenger ferries of 55 meters or less that sailed legs of up to 100 kilometers “could replace 50 percent of fossil fuel use with electricity.”

But before states can really put electric ferries to work, they need to solve the logistics issues around charging ferry batteries. If you think the U.S. has been slow to add new mobile charging stations along the road system, that’s nothing compared to figuring out charging stations along waterways.