It can be hard for islanders to feel like they hold any sway with Washington State Ferries — and no doubt the recent weekend was a rough one, with ferry sailings canceled because of lack of crew Friday, Saturday and Monday.
It may be tempting to simply give up on the ferry system, but it is important that we do not. Next week the Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee will hold a meeting and then an open discussion about the two draft schedules WSF presented last week. A story on page 4 of this issue explains some of the changes that could be implemented. Most striking to us is the draft schedule that would route vehicles most of the morning from Fauntleroy to Southworth — and then to Vashon, more than doubling the time of the trip between West Seattle and the island. Passengers who want to travel opposite of peak flow patterns would not fare so well other times of day either.
Also of concern to both Beardsley and Eric Beckman, who is new to the advisory committee and is Vashon’s new appointee to the Triangle Route Improvement Task Force, is allocation — how many Vashon and Southworth vehicles will be allowed on joint sailings.
Next week’s meeting is an important one to attend, and it is important that WSF hear from islanders.
Choosing to live on an island means choosing to live with some inconvenience, but the recent flurry of canceled sailings for lack of qualified crew has been, at best, extremely frustrating. Friday night was particularly bad. At nearly midnight, WSF sent out an alert saying it was canceling the final runs of the night from Fauntleroy, Vashon and Southworth, stranding passengers in the process.
WSF’s head of communications Ian Sterling says he knows these kinds of cancellations are frustrating for all involved. He attributed some of the cause to the high numbers of people traveling on ferries this summer, saying crews are working hard and are stretched thin. Human error plays a role, too. On Monday morning, two sailings between Point Defiance and Tahlequah were canceled because someone overslept. If that happens habitually, Sterling said, the crew member will be fired.
But on Friday, WSF knew in advance it was going to have a staffing shortage, he said, and made more than 1,000 phone calls to try fill the gaps. With moving people around the system and holding crew members to work the maximum number of hours allowed by the Coast Guard, WSF was able to limit the Friday cancellations to those late at night. Then a glitch occurred in the email system, Sterling said, and instead of the alert being sent out three to five hours earlier, it was sent out at nearly midnight.
“That is not acceptable,” he said.
He is right about that. To make matters worse, at least at Fauntleroy, the terminal was closed and locked, meaning those waiting had to do so outside, with no access to a bathroom. He cited security concerns, but certainly stranded passengers had security — and other substantial — concerns of their own, and leaving a portion of the terminal open may have made a very difficult situation for some people a little bit easier.
At least in part, the staffing problem comes down to money. Sterling said ferries used to carry extra crew, allowing for flexibility if they were short a staff member. But that is no longer the case.
“People expect us to be perfect,” he said, “but the expense to make that happen is something the taxpayers do not seem to have an appetite for.”
For now, though, it is important to focus on the most pressing matter at hand: the two draft schedules. Spend some time with them, go to the meeting or open conversation time next week and then let WSF know what you think.