Ferry chief outlines challenges

With increased summer travel in the state underway, the head of Washington State Ferries recently spoke about the triangle route and some challenges and possibilities ahead for the route and the system as a whole.

Amy Scarton has been in her position since February of last year and attended a meeting on Vashon last fall, where hundreds of islanders turned out to express frustration with new ticketing procedures, long waits at Fauntleroy and boats that leave partially full. This year, while there are few changes in place, Scarton, who has family on the island and visits them here, said WSF officials have their ongoing attention on the route. Earlier this year, Sen. Sharon Nelson arranged for funding for a police officer on Saturdays to help with traffic flow, a measure Scarton said she believes will be helpful. Beyond that, she cited the work of the Triangle Route Improvement Task Force, which has tried operational strategies and is now focused on schedule changes slated to be put in place next June, with the arrival of a larger vessel. The long-range planning process is also underway.

Later this week, the UW’s Evans School of Public Policy will begin its study of triangle route operations, Scarton said, and will have a broad scope, evaluating ticketing and loading procedures at Fauntleroy, conducting an economic analysis and reviewing social, environmental and community outcomes. The work, with funding that begins July 1, will conclude by November, too late for this summer.

“The good news is we are still looking at it,” she said. “We are open to looking at things differently, to studying things and trying things out.”

Systemwide, she said that WSF saw the highest ridership in 15 years last year, with the highest percentage of that growth on the Southworth-Fauntleroy run. She juxtaposed that growth with the 1950s Fauntleroy dock.

“Our ability to absorb that growth is exceptionally low,” she said.

Looking to the summer ahead, when pressure on ferries is increased, she encouraged commuting islanders to consider car pools or van pools through King County or large employers if they have not done so, using bikes or buses whenever possible instead of personal vehicles and buying tickets ahead of time for themselves and any guests coming to the island.

With operations evaluated and the schedule modified, she said that the last piece for WSF to look is infrastructure — the dock itself — without pre-fixed ideas of what can or cannot happen there, including size of the dock.

“We will be looking at all options when the time comes,” she said. “I am not approaching any capital project with a predetermined set of expectations for what needs to happen.”

Regardless of other pressures, she said WSF has a “major preservation issue” at Fauntleroy, as the dock is not up to seismic or sea level-rise standards and paving is only good for seven years. At that time, she said, WSF will have to replace the pilings, put down a new deck on the dock and make sure it is adaptable to climate change. While planning for that project, WSF can also look more broadly at what else needs to happen there. She added that she is having conversations with people in all areas served by the route and would like people from those communities to get together, put forth as many ideas as possible and then decide on a few to go forward for a full environmental review. Some of the environmental and scoping work will begin soon. She added that the long-range plan currently in process will likely point to the necessity of changes at Fauntleroy because of the seismic issues there. That plan will make broad recommendations, but more detailed recommendations will then be developed.

Scarton also addressed what she termed one of the top concerns she hears from ferry riders, the age of the fleet. Between now and 2040, 13 boats — more than half the fleet — will hit the 60-year-old mark, the age the Legislature previously set to determine their retirement.

It takes about two years to build a boat, she noted.

“It will take me the entire 26 years just to stay even,” she said. “That is not even adding service, adding boats for when others go out of service, which we need, or cutting back the age when boats go out of service.”

Coast Guard vessels are retired at age 30, she added, noting that she recently had a conversation with the head of one of Norway’s premiere maritime organizations, which retires its vessels at 20.

“I want to challenge the notion we should even expect our boats to make it to 60,” she said.

Soon, she added, a progress report on the long-range plan is due to the Legislature, and she will show them the chart regarding the age of boats. She is also looking at the governor’s budget, which comes out in December.

“We will all be pushing for some strong ferry investment,” she said.

The Legislature is critical, she said, as riders are doing their part, covering 75 percent of operational costs; with other revenue streams, such as advertising and concessions added in, that number increases to over 80 percent, which she termed a “fantastic” recovery ratio.

“The capital costs, that is what we need the big help with. To have the Legislature buy into a program of vessel replacement is the goal,” she said.

She hopes to see a start toward this goal in the next Legislative session.

“We need to get the ball rolling,” she stated.

Moreover, a plan to build new vessels could also include conversion to “greener” vessels, including hybrid electric and at some point fully electric vessels.

Finally, Scarton made a bid for islanders to consider working for WSF, noting that like many government agencies, WSF is facing a retirement cliff. She also noted that WSF promotes from within.

“I know we have some islanders who work at the terminals but I would love to see more on the decks of the boats and down in the engine room, she said. “I think it would help us running the triangle route to have more islanders working on the triangle route.”

Correction: A previous version of this story included reliablity and on-time performance data for the triangle route. That information has been removed, as it was for the whole ferry system, not just the triangle route.

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