Daily commuters across the United States struggle with heavy traffic and frayed nerves, but many people living around Seattle, Washington have an alternative that's both stress-free and scenic. They travel by ferry boats, on a system that's celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

The blast of a horn signals another ferry approaching Seattle, this time from Bainbridge Island, a half hour ride away.

Passenger Diane Converry lives 75 kilometers from Seattle, in Sequim, Washington. She says the ferries not only help her to get to cities like Seattle and Tacoma, but to the islands surrounding her home. "Basically we use all the ferries, almost like another vehicle," she says.

Another passenger, Paul Waddington, is visiting the United States from Britain. He's taking a round trip ride just for fun.

"The very first time I came on this trip I thought it was really exciting, so I've made it a principle to come back each time," he said. "I love the skyline one way, and seeing the Olympics the other. And Mount Rainier is very clear too. It's just a great experience."

Boat captain Gary Fredback has worked with Washington State Ferries for 24 years. As the system observes its 50th birthday, he believes there are many reasons to celebrate.

"The ferries have long been a part of the state of Washington, which keeps us special here," he says. "We're the number one tourist attraction, for one thing, and the outlying areas are brought together through our ferry system, which carries about 27 million passengers annually. It's a viable system in that you don't have backups on the roads. You don't have to resurface the roads. You've got an open waterway out there. And what better way to travel as far as commuting goes."

Washington State Ferries now includes nine different routes around the Puget Sound, extending north to British Columbia in Canada. Gary Fredback says the system has become bigger and more complex over the years.

"Sailors being what they were 50 years ago, they have changed immensely," he says. "There's a lot more responsibility. Ridership is up a great deal. We're connected with the Internet now. We have our own site. The site itself had 75 million hits last year alone. So it shows you how extensive we are here."

Ferry boat design has also become more advanced something that's evident from the control rooms on each end of the boat above boardand the maze of machinery in the engine room below. Ship Engineer David Lindemann says the ferry has a unique design.

"We call it a power island type of electrical power system. We have four large diesel driven generators that produce electricity. And we take that power and we transform it down to the propulsion power we need for the drive motors. And that's the way the vessel operates in a very simple way."

That vessel is the largest ferry in the Washington state system. It has a crew of 15, carries 2500 passengers and some 220 cars. Captain Gary Fredback says loading those cars onto the boat is like solving a puzzle.

"Each car and truck has to be placed in a certain place," he says. "And because we're on a vessel you've got to be cognizant of how well you're loading, where your weight's going and so on, so you don't go to one side. If everything goes real well, we average about 10 minutes to offload and 10 minutes to onload."

Amid the 50th birthday celebrations this year, Washington State Ferries faces concerns about its future. Public funding cuts have slashed its operating income by 75 percent, forcing a fare raise. Gary Fredback also worries about proposals to bridge the Puget Sound.

"Then the ferry system would be cut drastically, if not completely," he says. "The problem we have with that is we'd lose that diamond we call the Puget Sound. For example, if the San Juan Islands were suddenly bridged, you would have an exit from the freeway that said 'Next exit, Friday Harbor.' It's a beautiful area, but if access was that easy to get to, we would lose all that."

As an alternative to more cars in the region, Gary Fredback talks about faster, more efficient ferries. He says engineers are now designing boats that can be elevated so they float on a cushion of air, some four meters above the water. The challenge is to make them more affordable. Such innovations would help Washington State Ferries move into the future with one of the most cherished parts of its past.

Photos courtesy of Washington Department of Transportation