Fixing Vashon’s ferry woes: New group asks islanders to get involved

Islanders can speak up and step up to help solve Vashon’s ferry woes at an upcoming public meeting.

Islanders will have an opportunity to speak up, step up and get involved in helping to solve Vashon’s ferry woes at an upcoming public meeting.

The meeting, at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 18, at the Vashon High School Theater, is a first step for a new working group, convened by the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce.

The group, comprised of member businesses and concerned islanders, has been meeting for the past three weeks to evaluate short-term and long-term strategic responses to the situation. Members include Wendy Aman, Rick Wallace, Cheryl Lubbert, Erin Kieper, Laura Cherry, Beth Lindsay and Amy Drayer.

“Islanders have spoken loud and clear about the hardship of this crisis,” said Drayer, the executive director of the Vashon Chamber of Commerce, which is helping to organize the Sept. 18 forum. “Social media is filled with our stories, which also have been shared at public meetings with Washington State Ferries. Now, it’s time to develop solutions that our elected representatives in Olympia can help put to work.”

Drayer will moderate the event, which she said would be attended by State Senator Joe Nguyen and Representatives Emily Alvarado and Joe Fitzgibbon. Other elected officials, public officials and representatives from Washington State Ferries have also been invited but are not confirmed at press time.

Drayer described the meeting as an excellent opportunity for elected officials to engage with their constituents.

“They’ll have the opportunity to hear firsthand what the people of Vashon are experiencing, and [share] their commitment to developing solutions,” she said. “In turn, both citizens and public leadership can use that vital information to evaluate how well Olympia is listening — and to support WSF, the legislature, and the governor in alleviating this crisis.”

The meeting, Drayer said, will kick off with basic facts about the current situation and the current WSF Service Restoration Plan status. Following that, attendees will split into breakout working groups.

Each of these mini-workshops will have a facilitator and a scribe. The result will be an inventory of short-term and long-term ideas, as well as areas of impact, that will be compiled into a report and handed off to WSF, legislators, and Gov. Jay Inslee.

As of August, Washington State Ferries (WSF) has reported that the service level on the Vashon-Southworth Fauntleroy triangle route stood at 74% reliability — far below WSF’s yardstick for restoration.

The result on Vashon, according to accounts on social media and expressed by islanders at other public meetings, has been children stranded on docks, aid cars delayed on hospital runs or returning to Vashon, missed medical treatments, hundreds of residents losing wages, and dozens of small businesses losing income.

A recent survey of Vashon businesses, conducted by the Chamber, showed that small businesses, which comprise the vast majority of the island’s employers, are struggling under the burden of service disruptions.

The clear majority — 60 percent — reported direct impacts to revenue, with 31 percent describing those impacts as “severe,” Drayer said.

“The harm to the community is clear,” she added. “But this is not just about Vashon. Ferries are the lifeblood for so many in Washington. We are reaching out to all the ferry-reliant communities – from Island County, all the way down to Pierce County, including Kitsap and King Counties. This crisis affects the economic health and quality of life of people and businesses across the state.”

Vashon Fire Chief Matt Vinci, reached by phone, said that he would also attend the meeting on Sept. 18.

In recent weeks, Vinci has expressed mounting concern about how disruptions to Vashon’s ferry service have impacted the fire district’s ability to serve islanders in their greatest hours of need.

“It’s my responsibility to ensure we have a system in place that protects the island,” Vinci said, detailing a meeting that he had last week with ferry officials including John Vezina, WSF’s Director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations.

Vinci said that at the meeting, he had relayed his concerns about the need for better communication from WSF when boats are canceled or delayed, and also discussed a recent incident where an aid car was not given priority loading to return to Vashon after transporting a patient to a mainland hospital.

He also discussed the impacts of disruptions of the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route, which curtail the district’s ability to transport patients off Vashon’s south end.

Vinci related he had told WSF officials, “When you shut down Tacoma, it’s a big deal to us,” and that he relayed that there had been times that the fire district had not been notified that service to the south end had been temporarily suspended.

Another concern, said Vinci, was ensuring that first responders would still be able to transport patients during the wee-hours early morning gap in service on the Triangle Route, using a ferry tied up on the Southworth dock.

Vinci described his meeting with Vezina and other officials as businesslike and productive but said that WSF had not committed to any increase in service to Vashon.

Still, Vinci said he would keep speaking up, to advocate for better ferry service for islanders.

“That’s my job,” he said. “It is personal when people can’t get to the doctor and get the care they need.”