Water taxi ID’d as part of fix for ferry woes

“It’s an emergency for people — their jobs are at risk, their health is at risk and their families are at risk.”

Acknowledging that immediate fixes are needed to ease Vashon’s ferry woes, State Representative Emily Alvarado pledged on Monday to pursue those solutions — including a partnership with King County to increase water taxi service to Vashon.

Alvarado, speaking on Monday night at a community forum attended by hundreds of islanders, was joined by State Senator Joe Nguyen and State Representative Joe Fitzgibbon, both of whom also pledged to work on both short- and long-term solutions to ease the disruption of service to Vashon.

“This is a priority issue for me,” Alvarado said, at the meeting. “There is interest [if we can] partner with King County to increase [passenger] ferry service, and that’s something we want to do — we’re working on that right now, and we’ll see how we can make progress.”

Alvarado also called for better communications and alerts from Washington State Ferries (WSF) when boats were delayed or canceled, and planning with other jurisdictions when large numbers of people leave the island for major events in Seattle — a reference to a July incident when numerous island teenagers were stranded overnight in Seattle following a Taylor Swift concert after late evening ferry service was canceled.

She also stressed the importance of better predictability and safety for commuter students at Vashon schools — a population she acknowledged was important to the school district’s financial health.

“You really do deserve reliability and predictability,” Alvarado said, referring to islanders’ myriad needs to travel to and from the mainland.

Fitzgibbon also acknowledged that unreliable ferry service was causing deep impacts on Vashon, calling islanders’ frustration with current service levels “visceral.”

“Every time we see a ferry schedule interruptions, we know that there are hundreds if not thousands of people whose lives are harmed by that experience, and we don’t take that lightly,” Fitzgibbon said, adding that the ultimate solution to the problem was to have more boats and more crew — assets WSF currently lacks.

But he too acknowledged the need for shorter-term solutions, including expanding King County water taxi service to Seattle.

Nguyen, detailing his long-term commitment to legislative solutions to improve ferry service, promised to continue that work — despite the obstacles presented by the broader Legislature’s lack of interest in Washington’s ferry system.

“There are 147 legislators in the Washington State Legislature,” Nguyen said. “About 30 of them have ferries in their districts. And I would probably say, generously, maybe six care about the ferry systems. And three of them are here right now.”

Also in attendance at the meeting was John Vezina, the Director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations for WSF. Vezina, in a short interview during a break in the meeting, said he was there not to speak, but rather to listen to islanders’ concerns.

Reiterating WSF’s problems with staffing and vessels, he said that these constraints were prompted by a worldwide shortage of mariners, and were shared by ferry services in Canada, as well.

Still, he acknowledged the deep impacts of poor service to Vashon, saying that if he had addressed the crowd, he would share his own frustration with the situation.

“I would apologize, and say I work with good people who feel like we are failing every day,” he said.

Ferry Action Forum

The legislators’ comments came at a meeting on Monday — dubbed a Ferry Action Forum — that islanders turned out for in droves.

Approximately 110 people attended the forum on Zoom, and a standing-room, in-person audience packed Vashon High School’s 265-seat theater and its Great Hall — commiserating, complaining, planning, and brainstorming solutions for what speaker Craig Beles called an emergency.

“It’s an emergency for people — their jobs are at risk, their health is at risk and their families are at risk,” Beles said.

Convened by the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce, Monday’s forum was a major effort to organize a unified community response to the dysfunction that has plagued the island’s ferry service since the beginning of the pandemic.

The problems have worsened considerably this year after the WSF failed to meet its goal of restoring three-boat service on the Triangle route between Fauntleroy/Southworth and Vashon — originally scheduled for April but now pushed back to early 2024.

According to WSF, the restoration of ferry routes in its system has been prioritized “based on ridership, service performance, availability and directness of travel alternatives, and vessel and crew availability.”

Four routes, now fully restored, were prioritized ahead of the Triangle route: Anacortes/San Juan Islands, Seattle/Bainbridge, Mukilteo/Clinton, and Edmonds/Kingston.

According to Vashon Fire Chief Matt Vinci, disruptions in ferry service to Vashon continue to significantly hamper the fire district’s delivery of emergency medical service to the island.

Last week, Vinci met with ferry officials to ask for better communication regarding canceled boats, and firm answers to his queries regarding the availability of vessels that are typically crewed at Southworth in the middle of the night during gaps in service.

On Monday, Vinci told The Beachcomber that communications had not improved since his meeting, and he was still waiting to receive an answer to his question about middle-of-the-night emergency service.

The lack of reliable transport for island patients to off-island hospitals, and for first responders to return to Vashon after transports, he said, remains a major public health concern for the district.

Islanders bring ideas

Organizers of the meeting said Monday’s meeting was just the start of a community-based response to Vashon’s ferry woes.

“We want to discover some community solutions,” moderator and Chamber of Commerce director Amy Drayer said. “This is a first step. … It took us a long time to get here. These are complex problems we are facing.”

Drayer also asked the audience to say “thank you” to the individual WSF employees, from the boat workers to the dispatchers, who keep the current ferry service alive. Those front-line employees earned a big round of applause from the crowd.

The audience broke into groups, convening in the Great Hall and lunchroom of VHS, to discuss different facets of poor ferry service to Vashon.

In one circle, parents, joined by school district Superintendent Slade McSheehy, discussed the anxiety of sending their kids either to the island or off of it for school and extracurriculars, fearing their children might end up stranded at the docks in Ruston, Fauntleroy, and Southworth. They also discussed their kids’ feelings about the ferry service, saying that they, too, were stressed and anxious about their safety, and lack of reliable service to and from home.

For solutions, parents discussed accommodations for kids stuck at the docks, such as a van service that could spirit them to safety, among a list of other ideas for mitigating harms posed to children and teens who travel unaccompanied to and from Vashon each day.

In another group, business owners shared deep frustration over serious impacts on their businesses, the diminishment of their commuter customer bases, and frustrations from their off-island employees who struggled to get to work due to unreliable ferry service.

One of the largest groups — numbering more than 50 islanders — focused on the myriad health risks posed by current service interruptions and delays.

Members of this group — which included elderly and disabled islanders who have missed important medical appointments and surgeries, as well as the parents of medically vulnerable children — called for changes including adding Vashon as an all-stops destination on the Triangle route, as well as streamlining priority medical loading protocols.

This group, too, called for better communication from WSF regarding interruptions to service.

Another large group, comprised entirely of islanders who identified as problem-solvers, discussed both short and long-term solutions for WSF — including revisions to the Triangle route schedule, improved access to the Fauntleroy dock, and the need for continued activism and input from islanders as a new dock was built.

In the end, legislators — speaking to the groups after they regathered in the high school theater — implored islanders to bring their voices to Olympia.

Asked what islanders can do to push the needle on the ferry issues, Fitzgibbon urged islanders to share their stories of hardship with him and other legislators.

Forge alliances with other ferry-using communities, Nguyen said.

Continue to seek creative ideas and partnerships across multiple levels of government, including the county, Alvarado said.

But Wendy Aman, a member of the planning group for the forum, had another suggestion — this one for WSF.

“Prioritize Vashon,” she said.

Find out more and participate in the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to improve ferry service on Vashon by visiting the Chamber’s webpage on the issue, at vashonchamber.com/far.