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Point Defiance-Tahlequah ferry service could be cut

Islanders who use the south-end ferry — some of whom are already feeling the pinch from reductions in service — may soon see the last run of the day end at 9:30 p.m., 30 minutes earlier than the current schedule.

This time, however, the proposed schedule change is due not to budget shortfalls at the beleaguered state ferry system but because of the U.S. Coast Guard’s mounting concerns about the safety of boats operated by tired deckhands.

The Coast Guard has ordered the state to end its so-called “touring watches,” 24-hour shifts that require the crew to work an eight-hour evening shift, sleep for eight hours and then work an eight-hour morning shift.

According to a five-page letter the Coast Guard sent to the state last year, crew fatigue has been cited in ferry accidents in other parts of the world and is a particularly important issue when operating boats in busy Puget Sound. What’s more, the Coast Guard said, the state has not put in place a program to ensure crews are able to handle these lengthy touring watches, shifts that exceed what the Coast Guard calls “the accepted standard.”

As a result, the state needs to cease a practice it has in place on the Tahlequah-Point Defiance run and a few others in the Puget Sound by Sept. 30, the Coast Guard says.

To accommodate the federal requirement, state ferry officials are considering making the last crossing to Tahlequah at 9:30 p.m., giving the crew time to return to Point Defiance by 10 p.m. and ending their shift then. Currently, the crew sleeps on the Rhododendron at Tahlequah after the 10 p.m. crossing.

But ferry officials could meet the federal rules by instead increasing the afternoon “tie-down,” when no ferry service exists between Tacoma and the south end of Vashon, said Dave Remagen, Washington State Ferries’ service planning manager.

This would enable the ferry system to start the afternoon shift later and maintain that 10 p.m. crossing, he said. On the other hand, it would lead to a bigger afternoon backup and thus more commuters missing the ferry and waiting for a later crossing.

“There’s already a lot of concern about the midday tie-up,” Remagen said.

Ferry officials are reaching out to the community to find out what Islanders who regularly use the south-end ferry prefer.

“We need to hear from the community,” said Marta Coursey, communications director for WSF. “Unfortunately, the bottom line is that we have to comply (with the Coast Guard directive) for very compelling safety issues. It’s not an option to not comply.”

Vashon’s ferry advisory committee is holding a meeting July 13 to garner input from Islanders. Ferry-service advocates, however, are already concerned about the impact the changes could have on those who regularly use the south-end ferry — where service has already been reduced considerably in the wake of the ferry system’s ongoing budget crises.

“We’ve taken so many cuts on that route. ... It’s not acceptable,” said Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), who crosses the Sound at Tahlequah when she commutes to Olympia. “In my opinion, this could be devastating for folks who depend on the south end.”

Jack Barbash, who works in Tacoma, concurred. It’s already nearly impossible, he said, for him to go to a restaurant or a movie after work. “This just makes it worse,” he said.

Jon Flora, another south-end commuter, said he’s frustrated by the way the south-end route is treated — a kind of poor cousin in the state’s constellation of routes.

“The south end has long been a problem,” he said. “I’m convinced they don’t look at Vashon as seriously as they need to.”

But Kari Ulatoski, a member of the Ferry Advisory Committee and longtime ferry-service advocate, said she believes WSF officials have worked hard to try to stave off these cuts.

For several years, WSF, at its request, has received a waiver from the Coast Guard from having to comply with the requirement.

“This is not a state mandate. This is a federal mandate,” she said. “WSF, to their credit, has been hashing this out, trying to find a solution that will not cut service.”

She said she hopes that Islanders will let ferry-service advocates know about specific issues the reduction in service will create — including potential safety issues and impacts on families, the elderly and sports teams.

“We want to have a good, strong argument,” she said.

The Ferry Advisory Committee will meet at 7 p.m. Monday, July 13, at the Vashon Library to discuss changes to the south-end route.

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