Vashon’s north-end ferry route, which has been plagued by delays, had nearly 500 late sailings last month, more than twice the delays it had in July two years ago.
Ferry officials say the frequent delays and resulting long lines will likely continue until this fall, when traffic slows and the route gets a new schedule and a different boat. But even then, they say, there will still be regular delays until the state can fund improvements at the Fauntleroy dock.
“We think that’s a key element,” said George Capacci, interim director of Washington State Ferries (WSF).
Last month ferries on the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route, often called the triangle route, left more than 10 minutes late 485 times, or 14 percent of the time, according to data released last week by WSF. In July of 2013, ferries on the route left late 296 times, and in July of 2012 there were just 195 late sailings.
Data for June shows a similar picture, with 243 sailings leaving late this June compared with 145 in June of 2012. However, more ferries were late in June of 2013, which had 349 late sailings.
Capacci explained on Monday that several factors have contributed to the frequent delays this summer on the triangle route.
The route is tightly scheduled, and for some time the state’s aging ferries have had trouble keeping up during heavy traffic or after delays from issues such as emergency medical transports. To make matters worse, vehicle traffic has been increasing slightly, and unloading the vessels takes longer than it did when there was a cadet with the Washington State Patrol directing traffic at the end of the dock during peak times.
In July, 84 of the 485 late sailings were identified as caused by heavy traffic, while 193 were accumulated delays, meaning the ferries hadn’t caught up from earlier delays.
“It is very complex, and when one vessel is behind a little bit, a car stalls on a boat or there is a long line somewhere, it really affects the dance of vessels we have down there,” Capacci said.
In addition, this summer one slip on the Vashon dock is being painted and is sometimes unavailable when needed. And the recent breakdown of the ferry Tacoma on the Seattle-to-Bainbridge route meant Vashon lost the Sealth, which was put on another route in the late July ferry shuffle. It was replaced by the Evergreen State, which was brought out of retirement and recertified by the Coast Guard to fill in.
The Evergreen State, built in 1954, is the oldest in the fleet. It must be operated more slowly and can’t catch up from delays as easily as other boats. It will likely be on the Vashon route through October, when another ferry is scheduled to come out of maintenance, according to Ray Deardorf, the planning director at WSF.
“It’s fragile,” Deardorf said of the Evergreen State. “We need to treat it tenderly, and we’re restricting top speeds so we don’t damage it.”
Though ferry delays have been frequent this summer, the triangle route has long struggled with late sailings, so much so that last year the state announced it would rewrite the route’s schedule, overhauling it to create one that would be easier to keep.
However, many islanders objected to WSF’s plan to cut several ferry trips throughout the day and space out the remaining trips, even though the plan included the addition of a larger ferry. After hearing public comments, holding a community meeting and receiving objections from members of its own schedule rewrite committee, WSF took a different route. In February officials announced they’d go with a more limited schedule rewrite, — cutting few or no runs — and would work to see the cadet to direct traffic restored at Fauntleroy and to add two ferry employees at the dock to help with traffic boarding the ferries. The ferries could avoid some delays and catch up more easily, they said, if it didn’t take so long to load and unload the vessels at the busy dock.
WSF is still finalizing its new schedule, which Deardorf said will cut just one mid-day run from Fauntleroy to Southworth and adjust some other trips by five or 10 minutes. He said the new schedule, which will begin in the fall, should cut back on delays some, but won’t be as effective without the extra help at Fauntleroy.
“It gives a little more breathing room, but it gave the route a chance to work if traffic control had been improved,” he said. “It’s like getting part of a loaf instead of a whole loaf.”
State Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) advocated last legislative session to restore the cadet position at Fauntleroy. In fact, she thought she had secured a $71,000 budget allocation for the Washington State Patrol to add the position. On Monday, however, she said she was surprised she hadn’t seen the cadet return in July and had begun to look into why.
However, Marta Coursey, a spokeswoman for Washington State Ferries, said on Tuesday that the system had secured $71,000 last legislative session, but it was for extra terminal staff to sort traffic at the start of the queue. She said the extra staffing is currently in place, and no funding was allocated for the Washington State Patrol position.
Nelson attributed some of this summer’s ferry delays to high traffic during to the unusually nice weather, but still called the number of late sailings “regrettable.”
She said she doesn’t support adding ferry staff at Fauntleroy but believes someone directing traffic at the end of the dock is key to keeping the schedule.
“Ultimately, that’s what we’ve got to do. We have to figure out money long term for cadets to get traffic moving,” she said.
The chair of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, Greg Beardsley, agreed. Beardsley, who serves on the schedule rewrite committee and in the past has been publicly critical of the ferry system, said he believes the state is on the right track with its latest schedule proposal. However, he said there will continue to be delays as long as the route is served by aging ferries and there is minimal traffic control at Fauntleroy. Beardsley, who is also a commuter, said he thinks increasing traffic on Fauntleroy Way, work on a sewage pump station by the dock and the bus stop at the end of the dock have only added to the problems.
“It’s unmanageable by the ferry system. They really can’t do much about it,” he said.
The state is currently building two new 144-car ferries to replace the oldest vessels in its fleet and recently secured funding for a third. As new boats are added to the system, the 30-year-old, 130-car Cathlamet will be reassigned to the triangle route, replacing one of the state’s aging 87-car ferries.
This ferry swap was originally scheduled to happen in late fall or early winter. However, the state is now unsure how long repairs to the Tacoma will take and how they will affect the rest of the system. As of Monday, WSF was still waiting to learn the extent of the damage to the Tacoma, which lost power mid-route last month and left the ferry system with an unprecedented number of boats out of service.
“We’ll have a more crystal clear idea once the repair plan comes along,” Capacci said.
Capacci stressed that while he’s bothered by delays on the triangle route, he’s glad the state was able to bring the Evergreen State out of retirement. Otherwise, the Vashon route may have been put on two-boat schedule, a situation he said would have been much worse.
“We could be running on two-boat schedule all summer,” he said. “I’d rather be talking about delays with three boats.”