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Vashon to get new ferry, new schedule

The Cathlamet, a sister ship of the Issaquah that currently sails on another route, will be reassigned to Vashon next year. - Courtesy Photo
The Cathlamet, a sister ship of the Issaquah that currently sails on another route, will be reassigned to Vashon next year.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

A state plan to change the north-end ferry schedule for the first time in 10 years is already raising concerns on Vashon.

Washington State Ferries recently announced plans to add a larger ferry to the north-end triangle route next fall and at the same time eliminate some runs throughout the day, allowing for more time between sailings. The new boat configuration and sailing schedule, officials say, will allow the ferries to carry the same number of cars throughout the day while more easily keeping to the schedule on a route that has become known for frequently falling behind.

The state will hold a community meeting on the island next month to explain the coming changes and gather feedback and will likely present a draft schedule for public comment late this year or in early 2014.

“We want a schedule that is resilient, reliable and realistic, whereas right now it is really fragile. ... Somethign needs to be done,” said Benjamin Smith, WSF’s service planning manager who has spent months working on the state plan.

Vashon’s ferry service advocates, however, say they believe a new schedule could cause longer lines at the docks and longer waits for commuters.

“With this schedule proposal, on-time performance might be better, but it will be at the expense of it taking longer for people to make their commutes,” said Jan Stephens, a former member of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC). Stephens was appointed by the state to a committee to provide feedback on the plan earlier this year.

Both Stephens and Greg Beardsley, chair of Vashon’s FAC and another member of the steering committee, say they’re unhappy with preliminary schedules that WSF has presented to the group. Any reduction in sailings on the route, even with the addition of a larger boat, they say, could cause problems during peak commute times.

“In 24 hours maybe the capacity has not been reduced, but in peak times … in the proposed schedule it’s spreading the departures out so that the capacity in those time frames will be less,” Stephens said. “There will be longer lines and longer waits.”

The volunteers also say they believe the state’s plan doesn’t address underlying issues that have caused ferries to frequently run late on the north end.

Aging Evergreen State class ferries, particularly the Klahowya, are being sailed slower due to mechanical issues, and the absence of a State Patrol officer to direct traffic at the busy Fauntleroy dock — a position lost in state budget cuts in 2011 — has caused delays in unloading. They also believe allowing some ticketed drivers to bypass the tollbooth, as has been done in the past, could allow for more efficient boarding there.

“The only thing they’re looking at is a schedule revision,” Stephens said. “We’re not seeing a commitment to fixing the underlying problems.”

WSF officials, however, say that while those issues do delay boats, the triangle route, one of the most complex in the state’s ferry system, has always fallen behind easily. Because sailings are so close together, even small disruptions can thrown boats off schedule.

In fact, Smith noted, recently when the Klahowya was replaced for maintenance and the three boats on the route sailed at normal speeds, there were still some delays.

“It has always had a fragile nature,” said Ray Deardorf, WSF’s Planning Director and another official working on the plan. “It doesn’t take much to make the boats run late.”

Deardorf said that state officials are using the addition of a new ferry to the system next fall as an opportunity to address the tight schedule.

When a newly constructed 144-car ferry is added to the Mukilteo-Clinton route, a 124-car ferry that currently sails on that route, the Cathlamet, will be reassigned to the triangle route, likely replacing the 87-car Klahowya. The ferry shuffle will leave the Vashon route with two 124-car ferries and one 87-car ferry, rather than the current configuration of one one larger boat and two smaller boats.

Since the ferries will be able to carry a slightly greater number of cars, Deardorf said, the state believes it can further space out sailings without disrupting the flow of traffic.

A large group was assembled several months ago to help plan for the change — the first rewriting of the schedule in a decade — and give feedback. The steering committee includes ferry staff, FAC chairs from Vashon, Southworth and Fauntleroy, as well as residents from those communities and representatives from King County Metro Transit and Kitsap Transit.

Deardorf and Smith said that while some preliminary schedules have been drafted, the agency is still early in the process and it’s too soon to say how many sailings the new schedule may eliminate or how much it will differ from the current schedule. With careful planning, they said, they believe they can make changes without impacting commuters.

“We’re keeping our committee engaged, and we’re taking the comments we hear very seriously,” Deardorf said. “If there are time periods where it looks a little weak, we’ll go back and rework that. We’re in the middle of a long process.”

However, Beardsley and Stephens, on Vashon, say they’re worried about the direction the state is heading and are already trying to spread the word among islanders about the upcoming changes.

Beardsley spoke at a recent meeting of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC) and has set up an email account, ferryschedule2014@centurytel.net, where the public can send comments  on the plan to be passed on to state officials.

The two also plan to take their concerns to state lawmakers.

“My feeling is if we on this island don’t stand up and have another ban-the-bridge assembly, this is going to get jammed down our throats,” he said.

VMICC president Tim Johnson said he, too, has concerns about the schedule revision. While the state is planning public outreach — beginning with a meeting next month — Johnson said he hoped the community council will start an early discussion about the changes. The group plans to reach out to islanders with information and take comments over email and social media.

“We’re trying to make this a broader conversation and build some support for whatever the community wants,” he said.

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