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MAP-21 Annotated – Ferries Funding Reform

Posted by Larry Ehl on Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Transportation Issues Daily

The thirty-plus states with public ferry systems will be interested in how MAP-21 significantly reforms ferries funding compared to SAFETEA-LU. It may surprise you to learn that ferries carry more than 100 million passengers annually and operate in over 35 states. They provide a critical transportation option to help ease congestion in major metropolitan areas.

In previous transportation bills ferries funding was distributed based on politically negotiated “set-asides” for a few states, with the rest distributed through a competitive grant program (recent years) or  earmarks (more distant years).

MAP-21 takes the politics out of ferry funding, as ferry systems will now receive a share of an annual $67 million funding based on this formula:

  • 45% – number of vehicles carried
  • 35% – total route miles serviced
  • 20% – number of passengers

While many ferry systems operate as defacto transit systems, ferries funding comes from the Highway Trust Fund. In part that’s because ferries link federal-aid highways (think of them like a bridge) and carry vehicles (including trucks delivering goods).


The MAP-21 change was bipartisan, with Democrats like Senator Patty Murray and Representative Rick Larsen, and Republicans like Representative Don Young, fighting for this change for a number of years..

How the funding will be distributed is still a bit unclear.  Will it be distributed to a state, based on the collective numbers of ferry systems within the state? If so, will the state be required to sub-allocate the funding to each system based on the formula? (One would think so.) Or will it be distributed directly to individual ferry systems?

USDOT maintains a database of ferry systems that includes vehicle, route miles and ridership information. The depth and accuracy of the database has been questioned over the past few years by many in the ferry industry. There have been some issues in past years with some ferry systems not submitting information, or submitting incomplete information. USDOT will have to resolve all of those issues and questions in short order.

Find the ferries section in MAP-21 in Sec 1121 (link to bill, 1.4mb PDF, 599 pages).

The seven largest ferry systems in the country as of 2010 were (in alphabetical order):

Alaska Marine Highway

Cape May-Lewes Ferry

Maine DOT-Maine State Ferry Service

New York City DOT Ferry Division (Staten Island Ferry)

North Carolina DOT Ferry Division

Washington State Ferries

Water Emergency Transportation Authority of San Francisco Bay

Here is some reaction to the MAP-21 provision:

“This bill is a huge win for states like Washington and Alaska that have so many residents who depend on safe and reliable ferry service to stay connected,” Rep. [Rick] Larsen said. “Ferries are a critical part of our national transportation system. This bill ensures ferries will receive reliable funding and that the Washington State Ferry System will not have to compete with other programs around the country for the funding it needs. We must invest in our ferry system to create good jobs, promote long-term economic growth and help ensure that the folks who rely on ferries are traveling safely and efficiently.” (Larsen, Young Hail Ferry Program Changes in Transportation Bill)

“In states like Alaska and Washington, ferry systems often serve as our highways,” saidRep. [Don] Young. “This Highway Bill builds on the achievements we made with SAFETEA-LU. I am especially pleased that this bill places great importance on route miles – this one provision will ensure that Alaskan ferries receive the level of funding they deserve. I want to thank my good friend Congressman Larsen for his continued support and work on this issue.”  (Larsen, Young Hail Ferry Program Changes in Transportation Bill)

“This critical funding for Washington State Ferries will help to maintain our ferries, fund current projects, and keep vessels in service,” said Senator [Patty] Murray.  “We depend on ferries as part of our highway system, to commute to work and back home safely to our families. While this is not a perfect bill by any means, I am proud to have included this provision to create jobs, promote economic growth, and make the necessary investments in our infrastructure to improve the safety, efficiency, and reliability of the nation’s largest ferry system.”  (Senator Murray Secures Major Victory for Washington State Ferries)

Larry Ehl is the founder and publisher of Transportation Issues Daily. In the public sector, Larry was Federal Relations Manager for Washington State DOT; Chief of Staff to US Senator Slade Gorton; and was twice elected to the Edmonds School Board.


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