As ferry woes mount, islanders ask for solutions

The meeting followed a system-wide crewing shortage over the weekend affecting dozens of sailings on numerous routes.

At a packed meeting of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee on Aug. 23, islanders poured out their concerns about continuing disruptions in Washington State Ferry (WSF) service to Vashon.

The meeting, held both in-person at the Land Trust Building and on Zoom, was attended by 125 people.

It followed a weekend that saw even more than the usual delays to Vashon’s ferry service — part of a system-wide crewing shortage that on Sunday, Aug. 20, slowed or stopped 65 sailings altogether on numerous routes.

These routes included the Triangle route of Fauntleroy/Southworth/Vashon, Port Townsend/Coupeville, Seattle/Bainbridge, Clinton/Mukilteo, San Juan Island’s “Interisland” and Pt. Defiance/Tahlequah.

At one point in the day, only one ferry on the Triangle route served all of Vashon, with long waits in between boats.

WSF’s Community and External Relations Manager Hadley Rodero and Legislative Analyst Rachel Dean, who attended the two-hour meeting for its first hour, explained WSF’s issues on that day.

Due to stringent Coast Guard minimum staffing requirements, dispatchers had worked overtime that weekend, placing hundreds of calls to fill open positions in an attempt to keep boats running, they said.

“We’re experiencing a shortage of crew system-wide,” Dean said. “We don’t have a good, deep bench to fill in if some of the people call out.”

Dean and Rodero, joined by Ferry Advisory Committee Chair Justin Hirsch, also outlined WSF’s August 21 progress report on its service restoration plan, which now calls for three-boat service to resume on the Triangle route in early 2024.

But statistics cited from the report, showing that the Triangle route had achieved 74 percent reliability from Aug. 7 to 20, and the Point Defiance/Tahlequah route had provided 97 percent reliable service during the same time frame, drew a howl of disbelief from the crowd.

The WSF staffers and Hirsch also discussed 2023 legislation to fund workforce initiatives aimed at ushering unlicensed deck officers through training and boosting recruitment of external mates to the pilotage program.

In time, they said, these new workforce measures will greatly ease WSF’s staffing woes.

But islanders who spoke up at the meeting were more concerned about the here and now — providing a litany of complaints about dangerous lapses in service in recent days and months.

One islander spoke about an instance in July when island teens were stranded in Seattle overnight after an early shutdown of the evening ferry service.

Another said that Vashon’s first responders repeatedly faced long delays in returning to Vashon after transporting patients to Seattle hospitals.

Another described demoralizing and exhausting delays in transporting her elderly mother to frequent medical appointments on the mainland.

In a statement that received applause, islander Neil Wiesblott summed up the problem, while acknowledging that many of WSF’s current problems were the result of chronic underfunding by the state.

“But despite the fact that we don’t have enough staff now, and despite the issues that are controlled by the Coast Guard and other factors, the reality on the ground is that we, as an island, are trapped,” he said. “People who go to work can’t get home to their children, can’t get to medical appointments, their lives are disrupted. This is reflective of long-term neglect, but what we’re not hearing are answers between now and four years from now when new boats come online — if they are delivered on time. What are we going to do for the next four years to resolve these matters? The reality is that we are unsafe.”

Other islanders suggested solutions to problems, including adjusting the current two-boat schedule — a possibility that was quickly ruled out by WSF’s Dean.

“We do not plan to make any schedule changes to the two-boat system at this time,” she said.

Amy Drayer, executive director of the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce, suggested that islanders take collective action to address the problem.

“What we’re feeling right now is a lot of energy, because we have been collectively harmed,” Drayer said. “So what we need to do is move through our energy, understand it, channel it into proposed solutions, and then bring them forward to our legislators, to the media, to legal channels and community.”

Drayer said that it had taken decades of underfunding of WSF to arrive at this moment and that solutions would not come overnight.

“But we know how to fight for this island,” she said. “It is one of our biggest priorities, as a Chamber, to push for ferries, because of how it impacts businesses and how it impacts people. Is there a way to take collective action? The answer is yes.”

In the days following the meeting, Drayer announced a community meeting, organized by the Chamber, to devise solutions to improve ferry service on Vashon. Attendees at the meeting, she said, will include Vashon’s legislators, legal experts and other advocates for change.

The meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 18, at the Vashon High School Theatre. (See “Happenings,” page 1, and Drayer’s commentary, page 6).

Ferry official weighs in

In a phone call on Monday, WSF’s ​​Director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations, John Vezina, said that his agency listens and takes seriously feedback from riders on all of WSF’s routes.

But he described WSF’s problems as deep and systemic, saying they were shared by agencies industry-wide.

Ferries in British Columbia, he said, were also canceling service, even though they could hire internationally — something prohibited by law in Washington State.

Vezina pledged to improve communications about service disruptions affecting Vashon, and also to ensure that docks and bathrooms were open at ferry terminals in case of unexpected service interruptions.

But he flatly ruled out another suggestion made at the meeting — that other previously restored routes might be readjusted to ensure better service to Vashon.

“No, we won’t cancel service on another route to prioritize Vashon,” he said.

Instead, he said that he “hoped people will read our Service Restoration Plan and understand that there are a lot of good people — fellow Washingtonians — who are trying to make this better within the parameter of our current constraints.”

Fire chief and senator get involved

In a phone call on Monday, Vashon Fire Chief Matt Vinci said that he requested a meeting with Vezina and other ferry officials to discuss the ongoing delays and disruptions to Vashon’s ferry service.

“This is seriously impacting us,” he said. “This is affecting people’s lives — their health and well-being and ability to get off the island to get resources.”

Sen. Joe Nguyen, who represents Vashon, also said in a phone call on Monday that he is committed to continuing to work with WSF to ensure better service to and from the island.

Last week, Nguyen and Sen. Marko Liias (D-Everett), Chair of the Senate Transporation Committee, issued a press release after attending an Aug. 24 meeting with WSF officials to discuss the repeated route delays and cancellations impacting Vashon.

Liias and Nguyen were both instrumental in the passage of 2023 legislation to boost recruitment of new staff as well as to promote existing staff, and open bidding to national shipbuilders to build badly needed new vessels for the ferry fleet.

“The investments we are making in our ferry system are going to have a dramatic impact both on staffing and service, but it is going to take time to get us to where we need to be,” Nguyen said, in the Aug. 24 press release. “Until then, WSF promised to work with us on additional interim solutions and improve communication with the public about service disruptions.”

In a phone call on Monday, Nguyen said such interim measures could include working with King County to provide additional passenger boat service to Vashon, as well as putting mitigation plans in place to prevent islanders from being stranded on docks if late-night boats are canceled.

He said he would also continue to fight for better funding for WSF in the legislature, characterizing it as a lonely crusade.

“There are only three or four legislators who care about ferries, so I have to fight the entire legislature,” he said, vowing to continue working for better service for Vashon.

Correction: The surname of Neil Wiesblott, who spoke at the Aug. 23 Ferry Advisory Council meeting, was misspelled in The Beachcomber’s print edition (Aug. 31) and a previous online version of this article. It is Wiesblott, not Weisblott.