Delayed departures for Washington state ferries hit an all-time high this year, as the Seattle Times recently reported, part of a steady decline in performance over the past decade. [“WA ferry delays hit highest mark in past decade,” Aug. 24, Northwest]. The fleet is smaller than ever, with hardly any boats available when a backup is needed, and those that are still running are less mechanically reliable than ever.
By far the worst performance record is in the San Juan Islands, where ferries are the only national highways in the county. Less than half of all departures departed within 10 minutes of the posted time, WSF’s punctuality standard. Residents of the island have come to regard a boat within 30 minutes of its posted schedule as a miracle. An hour, or two, or more, is not uncommon.
In addition to the delays, WSF has since acknowledged that more than 300 San Juan sailings were canceled from June 1 through August 28 due to mechanical issues or insufficient crew to meet Coast Guard requirements. These are not counted by the WSF as “overdue”. They just never happened.
For some perspective, canceled San Juan Islands sailings this summer are just three times higher than last summer and more than seven times higher in the summer of 2020 (when there was significantly less service overall and much less traffic due to the pandemic).
By any measure, the current issues — on-time service and outright cancellations — have escalated considerably. Since San Juan County is almost entirely dependent on ferry service, to and from the mainland as well as between islands, the impacts on daily life and the economy of the county are far more severe than any other part of the system. of the WSF.
More than 30 children depend on ferries to get to school in Friday Harbor on the Tillikum, a ferry built when Eisenhower was president. It’s mechanical addiction is what you expect. When not sailing, the four islands served by the ferry are cut off from each other. Children, workers, people trying to get to the doctor or go shopping are blocked.
As bad as the situation is, Jim Corenman, longtime chairman of the county’s ferry advisory committee, said the situation will only get worse.
There are some short-term changes that might help. One would be for the WSF to move a more reliable boat to the inter-island link and for the Tillikum to be located closer to the system maintenance facility at Bainbridge.
Another would be for the WSF to implement an alert system that would immediately move all county mainline boats to stop on all islands in each direction between Anacortes and Friday Harbor. This was how the island service used to work. The WSF now does this ad hoc, through layers of bureaucracy and very slowly. He must have a plan that can be implemented immediately and empower someone who understands the needs of the county to implement it. This isn’t a perfect solution as it would lead to disgruntled travelers – mostly county residents as well, and especially on the Anacortes side – but it wouldn’t leave inter-island travelers – especially school children – stranded for hours.
As severe as these issues are, the rest of the WSF system also suffers, beyond delayed departures. Three routes – Bremerton-Seattle, Vashon-Fauntleroy-Southworth and Port Townsend-Coupeville – each operate one less boat than usual and others often run out of boats due to mechanical problems or insufficient crew.
WSF told The Times that its terrible performance was mainly the result of personnel shortages, particularly among captains, mates and engineers. But anyone paying the slightest attention 10 years ago would have seen the retirement bubble in these jobs approaching and would have started to take the necessary steps to fix it.
The same goes for the deck staff, a source of future companions and captains. The WSF has a history of treating deck hires terribly, making them on-call employees for two years before giving them steady work, which can then lead to Coast Guard certification as mates. then skippers. It was a terrible way to find, hire and keep good people. Has he changed his system? No. Instead, he tried to blame his staffing issues on the pandemic.
The collapse of the system began more than 20 years ago when the legislature scrapped the motor vehicle excise tax, a major source of funding for ferries. Fares quickly doubled to make up for the loss. Then there was a series of bosses who phased out or drove out people who knew anything about ferries, and who were so incompetent that the legislature, always slow to fund ferries, had another excuse to slow down. funding.
For most of the past decade of decline, its failure has belonged to Governor Jay Inslee, who thus far has left WSF’s leadership in place and its declining performance unabated. It is high time for that to change.