Ferry fleet’s fate rests with legislators

The fate of Washington State Ferries’ Long Range Plan, specifically the construction of five new Olympic-class boats, hangs in the balance at the moment, as the Legislature works on a budget that may or may not include the funding to maintain the current builder’s contract. If it does not, the contract will expire this summer, and the process to build new boats would have to start all over again — setting the timeline back seven to nine years, which would have significant system-wide repercussions — namely, the likely loss of three-to-five boats from the fleet due to age, before a single new boat could be added.

“The Legislature approved funding for the four new Olympic-class boats that we have now in 2015, and the builder’s warranty is still in effect until this summer,” John Vezina, WSF’s Director of Government Relations, said. “So if we get the funding, we can renew the contract with Vigor [builder] and have a new boat by 2022 because the designs are in place already. If we don’t get the funding and the warranty is allowed to expire, state law will require the process of design, approval and bidding to start all over again, which would take five to seven years, depending on the new bids. That scenario would mean we would not see a new boat in the fleet until 2027 or 2029.”

With a slate of vessels that are old enough for AARP membership, WSF’s Long Range Plan calls for the retirement of a number of them within that time frame, and if there is nothing new to replace them, the implications for Triangle Route travelers have some people concerned.

Namely, Greg Beardsley of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee.

“The Legislature has to revive this contract,” he said. “If they don’t, WSF is going to start retiring boats, and they’ll end up short — which means pulling from the Triangle Route and a two-boat schedule for us too often.”

As Triangle Route users have just come off of a week on the two-boat alternate schedule (its official name) during which travel times to and from Vashon were anywhere from 2.5 to 4 hours for the ferry portion alone, Beardsley’s concern appears to be well-founded.

One of the biggest frustrations for Vashon commuters was the space allotment discrepancy between Southworth and Vashon vehicles during early morning sailings. The Beachcomber received a number of emails from islanders who said that it appeared that very few cars were being loaded from Vashon until after 9 a.m.

“By not enforcing equal allocations during the morning commute, they essentially stranded islanders on the island. During the early morning runs, hundreds more Southworth people were taken across to Fauntleroy than Vashon people,” islander Sarah LeBlanc said. “It is crazy that they think filling up the boat in Southworth and then only taking 10 Vashon cars is OK. Why are they allowed to do that? Who decides that is OK?”

LeBlanc added that because the two-boat schedule added anywhere from three to five hours to her commute time, she ended up making arrangements to work from home for much of the week, since the added time made it too difficult to look after family and pets. But she also noted that it is not always possible to do that.

Another islander, Terra Boulse-Acharo, who works at a hospital in Seattle, said that whenever the route goes to a two-boat schedule, she makes arrangements to either stay with friends on the mainland or pays for a VRBO.

“I cannot rely on the ferry to get me to work on time to see patients,” she said of the schedule disruption. “I also cannot add another two hours to my 12-hour day in the morning, and again in the evening, waiting in line to ‘hopefully’ make a boat. The poor ferry service is becoming a financial burden and truly decreasing my quality of life.”

Others had a more philosophical take on the situation.

“We ended up parking on the hill (on Barton Street) and walking to our car every day,” said islander Gene Kuhns. “That saved us from the line, and we got some exercise too. Life with a ferry is just like adding another uncontrollable dimension, like the weather, to your life. On a rainy day, if you get mad and hold your fist to the sky, all you do is get wet, and it keeps right on raining. Same with the ferry. We need to be happier, smile more and be nicer too each other. Life is too short to get upset over things we have no control over.”

The Legislature’s budget decisions are not all that is looming over this island’s ferry-dependent community, as WSF’s new Triangle Route schedule — including a new two-boat schedule that was recently revised to align with it — will begin on March 31.

The new two-boat schedule compounds the issues of the new regular schedule, namely, the loss of direct sailings to Fauntleroy in the late afternoon/evening and a Southworth-stilted space allotment in the mornings.

According to WSF spokesperson Hadley Rodero, the Southworth-Vashon morning sailing allotment is the same for both the regular and two-boat schedules and is not going to change: Southworth gets 62 percent of the 4:20 a.m., 50 percent of the 5 a.m., 99 percent of the 6 a.m., 65 percent of the 6:40 a.m. and 33 percent of the 8:30 a.m. sailings. Vashon has Vashon-only sailings at 7:20, 7:55 and 9 a.m. On the two-boat schedule, Vashon loses two direct sailings as well as two shared sailings in the morning.

“The result is that when we are on the two-boat schedule, capacity favors Southworth from 4:20 to 6:40 a.m., and Vashon from 7:20 a.m. on,” Rodero noted. “What people may be noticing is the reduced capacity that comes from losing a bigger boat from the route. If 60 cars usually get on the 50/50 split sailing at 5 a.m., and now the 90-car Sealth is in that spot, only 45 are going to get on.”

And if the smaller boat is on the 6 a.m. run, only nine cars will get on from Vashon.

As for the perception that some islanders expressed via emails and social media that Southworth was loading beyond its allotments during the difficult week, Rodero said that WSF staff examined video footage from the Southworth terminal and determined that procedure and allocations were being followed to the letter. Or more to the point, number.

While WSF cites the two-boat alternate schedule as having only been implemented for four days total in 2018, Rodero explained that number does not include times when a boat is out of service for several hours or partial days, and the regular schedule remains in place — minus whichever boat is not in service.

“The two-boat schedule is not ideal for anybody,” she added, “when you’re down a third of your service.”

Beardsley, speaking for himself and not on behalf of the Ferry Advisory Committee, believes that the schedule is simply unfair to Vashon.

“The allotments are unfair and not equitable,” he said. “According to Ferries’ own statistics, Vashon travelers make up, on average, 69 percent of the vehicle traffic on the route. The numbers from the last quarter of last year show us [Vashon] at nearly double the number of Southworth users. Vashon pays for this route, and yet we’re getting the short end of the stick.”

According to the Traffic and Rider statistics on the WSF website, total ridership between Fauntleroy and Vashon for 2018 was 1,954,778 people. Between Fauntleroy and Southworth it was 992,280 people.

The Beachcomber asked Rodero why the morning allotments aren’t, or couldn’t be, split evenly between Southworth and Vashon, and while she said that a response was in the works, one was not received by press time.

“They know they can walk all over us because King County will not, or has not in the past, stood up with us,” Beardsley said, noting that Kitsap County Council and its lobbyist in Olympia were active in advocating for Southworth during the new schedule work up. He also admits that at least for his part, as he can’t speak for other members of the FAC, no request was made to the King County Council for help.

When reached for comment, Council Chair Joe McDermott voiced strong support for Vashon.

“We have no control over Ferries, as it’s a state agency,” he said. “But we hear your complaints, and we do advocate and get involved. I wrote to Amy Scarton [head of WSF] directly and asked her to hear out and examine Vashon’s needs as far as the new schedule goes. And I told them that we needed to see how this was going to go when it was implemented, that they weren’t done just because they came up with it.”

McDermott said that if it’s clear that the new schedule is causing too many issues for islanders, then he will advocate for WSF to re-evaluate it.

As for Beardsley, who is anticipating the Legislature’s budget decisions, he is also focused on how best to track and record problems following the implementation of the new schedule. To that end, there will be a public FAC meeting from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 19, at the Vashon Library to discuss ideas.

The bottom line for the island’s commuting sanity, though, is new boats.

“The only way we’re going to avoid a regular two-boat scenario is to get new boats built,” Beardsley said.

On that point, WSF agrees, but Vezina pointed out that the bottom line for the Legislature is money.

“Each of these ferries costs $161 million,” he said. “And Washington’s transportation budget is separate from its capital budget, so if transportation gets money, that means it was taken from something else. There is only so much to go around, so we’ll see what they decide to do. If they don’t revive the contract, then we’ll do everything in our power to keep the vessels running, but at some point there will have to be cost-benefit decisions.”

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