Transportation chief visits Vashon to ‘listen and learn’

State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond told some 250 Islanders Thursday night that she’s sorry for the impact the Washington State Ferries’ spate of problems has had on Vashon commuters.

Sounding at times conciliatory and other times frustrated, the state’s newly appointed top transportation official told Islanders that she knows the difficulties — particularly the unexpected reduction of three ferries to two on the north end and the cancellation of five days of service on the south — have been difficult for ferry-dependent Vashon Island and that she’s working hard to improve things.

“I know these past few weeks and months … have not been good for you, and I’m sorry,” she told the standing-room-only crowd at Chautauqua Elementary School’s multipurpose room.

“I’ve learned a lot in the last few months about what isn’t working. … I don’t know why we thought 80-year-old boats would last forever,” she added.

Hammond, 51, whose visit marks a first in a few years by a secretary of transportation, came to the Island at the behest of Kari Ulatoski, a ferry-service advocate who wanted Hammond to understand Vashon’s unique situation among ferry-served communities. She invited Hammond to come in January, after the secretary rode the north-end triangle route in an effort to more fully understand the situation but wasn’t able to get off at Vashon — as planned — because she was surrounded by Southworth commuters eager to tell her their ferry woes, said Ulatoski, who heads the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council’s transportation committee.

“My big goal is to heighten awareness of Vashon and our commonality with other ferry-served communities and the fact that we’re ferry-dependent and that makes us unique …, particularly in the South Sound,” Ulatoski said.

In a dinner prior to Hammond’s public meeting, Ulatoski said, the secretary as well as Steve Reinmuth, her chief of staff, told Ulatoski and other ferry-service advocates that “things are going to change.”

“But what that means for us on Vashon, I don’t know. Part of me is saying, ‘I like what I hear,’ but what we need is the action to follow,” Ulatoski said.

At the town hall-style meeting, organized by the Island’s community council, many Islanders made it clear that they, too, want things to change. Vashon residents raised a range of concerns during the 90-minute meeting, including the price seniors pay for ferry service, the lack of integration between the ferry system and King County’s Metro, the lack of parking for commuters and the need to make the ferries truly accessible for people in wheelchairs.

Brad Webb, who uses a wheelchair, told Hammond he has been literally stuck on the ferry twice in the last several months because cars blocked a through-way on the car deck that is supposed to be kept clear. The deck hands told him there was nothing they could do and that he would simply have to stay on the ferry and go to Southworth, when enough of the cars got off for them to clear a path for him, enabling him to get off at Vashon on the way back.

When he phoned the Washington State Ferry’s customer service official to complain, he added, she never called back.

“This may be your marine highway,” Webb said, quoting a button many Islanders were sporting, “but it’s my marine sidewalk.”

Hammond told him she found his story “deplorable” and urged him to work with her to solve the problem.

“It’s a new day at WSF,” she told him. “I understand your issue, and I’m sorry we’ve not been responsive.”

Roger Fulton, another Islander, said he was troubled by ferry officials’ decision to cancel all service on the south end when they could have reduced the north-end service to two boats and sent one of those boats to Tahlequah. Earlier in the year, they had reduced the north-end service to two boats to accommodate a route in need, he pointed out.

“I want to know what local Vashon groups were consulted when you made that 3-0 decision,” he said.

“I’ll be blunt. We got very gun-shy about taking another boat off the north end,” Hammond answered, an apparent reference to the anger many Islanders expressed when the north-end service was reduced to two boats in January.

Others complained about the notice given for that sudden elimination of the south-end ferry service. When the service went out, a sandwich board in Burton announced the lack of ferry service off the south end of the Island, but many Tahlequah users live south of Burton and thus didn’t see the sign, people told her.

Islander Lee Ockinga told Hammond that her daughter’s soccer team came in last place in part because of the cancellation of the south-end ferry service and the lack of notice to those south of Burton. Because she didn’t know the service was down, she carried a carload of kids to Tahlequah only to find out about the cancellation — but not in time to go to the north end of the Island and make it to the game in time. As a result, her daughter’s team had to forfeit two of their last three games, she said.

Reinmuth suggested the installation of a “variable-message sign” that would let people know about interrupted service. Answered Wendy Wharton, a south-end resident, with a tone of exasperation in her voice, “We have one. It didn’t say anything except ‘Welcome to Tahlequah.’”

Hammond, an engineer who worked at the department for 29 years before becoming the head last October, seemed at ease before the group of Islanders. The first woman to lead the transportation department and its staff of nearly 7,000 employees, she has already won praise for her level-headedness, her ability to make decisions and her candor with the public.

Lawmakers from ferry-served communities, Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) said, are particularly pleased.

“Everybody realizes she has an uphill battle, but she’s been really responsive to our questions,” Nelson said. “She’s on the phone every Friday morning with the ferry caucus. … We have so many issues, and we have to stay apprised, and she’s on board every Friday.”

But in her short tenure, she’s already faced some extremely tough situations — including avalanches on Snoqualmie Pass that forced its closure this winter, flooding that faced the closure of Interstate 5 in December and her decision to pull the state’s four aging steel-hulled ferries out of service in November, eliminating car-ferry trips between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend.

After the meeting, Jim English, who heads the Island’s community council, said he was impressed by Hammond and encouraged by the tenor of the meeting.

“I think we have a wonderful window of opportunity,” he said. “She won’t be able to transform things overnight, but she’s already starting to make some changes.”

Gary Sipple, an Islander who is the process of organizing a new ferry outreach coalition, said he, too, was impressed by Hammond.

“She fully admits that she’s trying to get educated,” he said.

The new coalition, which he’s calling the Ferry Community Network, will be another way for the Island to attempt to have an impact and affect the kind of ferry service Vashon and other ferry-served communities receive, he added.

Sipple, who’s working with English and Joe Ulatoski on the network, said it will be modeled after the way Ulatoski has organized the Neighborhood Emergency Response Organizations (NERO), which enable groups of Islanders to come together to protect their own interests and take care of their needs.

“Over the 20 years I’ve been here, I’ve been amazed by how much individuals and groups can do, especially here on Vashon, where we’re isolated,” Sipple said. “It’s amazing what things people have done in this community to overcome problems and issues. What we’re trying to do here is no different. I’m very optimistic.”