Washington State Ferries ridership rebounds

Written by Nick Blenkey
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Washington State Ferries Jumbo Mark II class ferry M/V Wenatchee.

Annual ridership aboard Washington State Ferries (WSF) reached 17.3 million in 2021, an increase of almost 3.3 million ferry customers on 2020’s pandemic numbers.

The uptick took ridership in 2021 to roughly 72% of 2019 pre-COVID-19 numbers, with vehicles climbing to 85% and walk-on customers up to 42% of pre-pandemic levels.

The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines and a boost in tourism are seen as the main reasons for what was the system’s largest year-to-year ridership increase on record.

For only the second time since it began operations in 1951, and the second year in a row, WSF carried more vehicles with a driver (8.9 million) than foot passengers (8.4 million) in 2021, as many customers continued to work from home or chose to drive on board because of the pandemic.

Ridership is expected to rebound further when COVID-19 eases and as WSF restores sailings closer to pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re in the process of planning our service restoration efforts as we continue to aggressively recruit, hire and train new employees,” said WSF Assistant Secretary Patty Rubstello. “Pandemic-related vessel crewing challenges and the temporary loss of one of our biggest ferries due to an engine room fire were two major service obstacles for us in 2021.”

2021 ROUTE-BY-ROUTE RIDERSHIP

The greatest year-to-year increase came on the Seattle/Bainbridge Island route, where total ridership – vehicles and passengers combined – was up 44%. The boost lifts the run back into the top spot as the system’s busiest after dropping behind Mukilteo/Clinton and Edmonds/Kingston in 2020 for the first time in more than 40 years. The Anacortes/San Juan Islands route had the second largest growth at 36% with ridership on those runs reaching 95% of pre-pandemic levels.

System highlights include:

  • Seattle/Bainbridge Island: Biggest year-to-year increase with total riders up 44%, led by a system-high rise in walk-on passengers of 54%; vehicles jumped a system high 32%.
  • Edmonds/Kingston: Total riders climbed 20%, vehicles grew 14%.
  • Mukilteo/Clinton: Total riders rose 14%, vehicles increased 11% to remain as busiest route for drivers.
  • Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth: Total riders up 13%, vehicles jumped 9%.
  • Anacortes/San Juan Islands: Total riders surged 36%, vehicles climbed 23%.
  • Seattle/Bremerton: Total riders grew 29%, vehicles rose 20%.
  • Point Defiance/Tahlequah: Total riders increased 18%, vehicles up 13%.
  • Port Townsend/Coupeville: Total riders jumped 22%, vehicles climbed 14%.
  • Anacortes/Friday Harbor/Sidney, British Columbia: The international route did not resume service in 2021 due to U.S.-Canada border restrictions and continued crewing and vessel availability challenges.
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