Holly Shull Vogel, left, and Kathy Abascal take a break at Cafe Luna from counting petition signatures. (Courtesy photo)

Ferry frustration high as summer travel season winds down

This summer began with ferry officials saying they were hoping for a “quick win” at Fauntleroy to deal with increased seasonal traffic, but with fall looming, there are indications that island commuters’ frustration is at an all-time high.

After Washington State Ferries (WSF) officials asked one of the Vashon members to resign from the Triangle Improvement Route Task Force last month — and another resigned in protest of that action and the process overall — some members of the Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee are crying foul. Jan Stephens, who had thought he would join the triangle task force as a replacement for either of the two men who resigned, said he has changed his mind and will not join.

“It really smelled like there was a predisposed plan here,” he said last week. “There were too many good options that had not been tried.”

The predisposition, he and some others say, is that WSF officials want to decrease ferry service to Vashon — and are working to make that happen.

Also last week, after experiencing many frustrating ferry commutes of their own, islanders Kathy Abascal and her sister Holly Shull Vogel launched a petition asking for independent oversight of the ferry system before any service cuts are implemented to the triangle route.

Last Friday, Abascal said they were “going gangbusters” on the the petition, and by Monday afternoon, they said representatives from 60 island businesses had signed, as well as 600 individuals. They plan to submit the petitions to Gov. Jay Inslee and additional elected officials.

Meanwhile, this week at a meeting of the Triangle Route Task Force, WSF officials will share their data from 30 days’ worth of ferry travel under the new boarding system. This task force, which WSF created with members of the Southworth, Vashon and Fauntleroy communities, was tasked with helping create the coveted “quick win” and then move on to proposing longer term fixes for the troublesome route. Ferry officials and the only remaining Vashon resident serving on the task force — Steven Merkel — have had good things to say about its progress and potential. Merkel has a decade of experience as a merchant mariner and said he volunteered because he wanted to see positive change for Vashon, his community.

“I feel this is a work in progress” he said. “It is not the ultimate fix, but something (on which) to build a foundation of success or capture our failures to move forward.”

He said when he began the process that he believed the goal of filling boats and having them leave on time would have been much easier than it has been to achieve. Instead, he said, the task force members are contending with those two options as a choice — either filling the boats, or leaving on time. But he remains optimistic, in part because of the frequent communication among the members of the group — all strangers when they started and from different backgrounds and representing different perspectives.

“I see us moving in the right direction,” he added.

Last week, however, Greg Beardsley, the longtime head of the Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee who was asked to resign from the task force; Hugh Turner, who resigned in protest, Todd Pearson and Stephens all gathered for a conversation about their concerns.

Beardsley addressed the repeated sailings of half-full boats while long lines snake up Fauntleroy Way.

“If I only had to measure one thing, that picture right there is everything you need to know,” he said. “What they are doing is not working if there is a line, and the boat is sailing away with that much room on it, and much of the line is pre-ticketed, but they cannot get on the boat.”

Stephens noted that the Ferry Advisory Committee has done a lot of work about the challenges of the route, including detailed spreadsheet analysis. Both he and Turner said they felt that WSF officials never wanted to fully address the situation — a contrast to their professional experiences.

“In the private sector, everyone wants to fix the problem,” Stephens said.

Turner agreed, noting that this element about working with Ferries also frustrated him.

“It was very inside-the-box thinking. Very constrained,” he added.

Beardsley agreed, but expressed himself differently.

“This whole process is just a bunch of dressing up pigs,” he said.

In fact, last year in August, the Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee submitted a proposal to WSF regarding the triangle route and changes it might make to fully load boats. This followed the quick roll-out and abrupt cancellation of new loading procedures at Fauntleroy that had not been implemented per an agreed-upon plan.

The letter, which Stephens provided, states that the committee recommended re-instituting an express lane for pre-ticketed passengers and laid out how that could work. The letter writers suggested using the two tollbooths and, for pre-ticketed cars, an express lane, managed by a person with a scanner.

“Ferry run capacity is critical to the triangle route,” the letter states. “The failure to load boats during heavy commuter hours decreases run capacity when capacity is needed most. The result is longer lines on Fauntleroy and extended wait times far beyond what is necessary.”

The only notable response from WSF about the letter was the creation of the task force, Stephens said.

“It was a disappointment then and still is,” he wrote in a recent email. “ WSF got what they wanted which was redemption of all tickets. Customer service plummeted and remains in the basement. Hence not only the frustration of working at this for years and losing ground, but also the daily aggravation of customers not getting properly served.”

The men say that by not properly addressing the situation at Fauntleroy, WSF will be able to reduce sailings on the route — with the task force’s blessing.

Beardsley remains adamant about the need for an express lane. In fact, he said that by taking out the two people with scanners and requiring everyone to go through the booth, WSF has reduced the “throughput” of that area.

“Why not take advantage of the fact that there are a lot of people on Vashon and Southworth that buy their tickets in advance and use the booths for what they need to be used for and that is to purchase tickets,” he said.

Regarding the safety concerns, he said some simple traffic-slowing features could solve that problem for free.

At WSF, however, Strategic Communications Manager Hadley Rodero says that Ferries is working under considerable constraints, financial and physical, including the limitations of the Fauntleroy dock, which is too small to hold a ferry’s worth of cars. She said that task force members agreed among themselves that initially they would look for ways to increase efficiency at the tollbooth and dock area and conduct an increased marketing campaign for people to buy their tickets early. Then they would shift their focus to longer term fixes, including potential schedule adjustments. That phase of the project will begin Thursday, and she said no determinations have been made about changing or dropping any sailings.

Regardless of any recommended changes, she said the public would have their say.

“Any process would include public input and a comment period. It would not happen without public outreach,” she said.

No changes to the schedule are immediate, she added, but said it will be important to review the schedule and make adjustments to accommodate a third Issaquah-class vessel when it comes on in the route in January of 2019. That 124-car vessel will take the place of an 88-car ferry.

She noted that the value of the task force members is not that they necessarily have expertise filling boats, but that they all use the ferries or live in neighborhoods affected by ferry traffic and have a diversity of opinions to share. Technical expertise is not required, she added, as the ferry system is supporting the effort, and there is considerable technical expertise in-house.

She added that the plan all along was to have 30 days of data before analyzing it and that everyone involved knew that those 30 days were also going to be a time of learning for staff and travelers.

With Vashon two people short on the task force, Rodero said WSF is looking to fill the spots. They have offered one to Kari Ulatoski, a Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee member. If she accepts, she and Merkel will work together and choose from the previous applicants to fill the third spot on the island.

On Thursday, ferry task force members — and any community members who attend — will learn the WSF results from this summer. Soon, ferry officials will come to the island for a public meeting on Vashon to more fully share what they have learned.

“We fully acknowledge there has been a lot of frustration. A meeting is not set yet, but we will have one in the next month or two,” Rodero said.

Triangle Task Force meetings are open to the public and held at the Fauntleroy Church, 9140 California Ave SW. The next two meetings will be from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Thursdays, Aug. 10, and Sept. 14.