Island ferry report details challenges, solutions to service problem

It was crafted by Islanders for Ferry Action, a working group convened by the Vashon Chamber of Commerce.

A 25-page report from the Vashon Chamber of Commerce, detailing the island’s frustrations with, and proposals for the state ferry system, was released Monday.

The report is many things — a collection of testimonies and experiences of frustrated ferry riders; an open letter and plea to state leaders; a collection of ideas for those state leaders; and at some level, an expression of community emotion and passion over an issue which has now vexed Vashon for years.

At least one of the suggestions — expanding water taxi access — is a top priority for incoming King County Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who will represent Vashon when she takes her seat as the new District 8 representative.

A link to the full report is available here. It was crafted by Islanders for Ferry Action (IFA), a working group convened by the Vashon Chamber of Commerce in September made of business owners, parents, and other islanders.

The report follows a community meeting held by the Chamber in September that drew more than 300 people to discuss challenges with the ferry system on the island and regionally. It includes more than 50 ideas to fix or at least alleviate problems caused by the current ferry deficiencies.

“We stand ready to partner with any agency that will take up even a few of the solutions we have documented in this report,” the IFA report reads.

The report points to how the frequent but unpredictable cancellations and delays of ferry routes disproportionately harm children, the elderly, the chronically ill, small businesses and people facing economic insecurities.

Those tolls on the community are urgent, the group reports: Ambulance delays, both for patients getting to off-island hospitals and aid personnel coming back for 911 calls on the island; missed medical appointments; lost work and wages for employees; and youth stranded on the docks before, during and after school.

With no bridges connecting the island to the mainland, the WSF system is relied on by vast majority of islanders use. Those aquatic highways — SR 160 and 163 — deserve the same urgent care that asphalt highways receive when they become inoperable, the report says.

“The state has a responsibility to keep (those state routes) open and in good condition,” Amy Drayer, Executive Director of the Vashon Chamber of Commerce, said in the report.

Almost 70% of island businesses who responded to the survey said the ferry problems have hurt their staff and made it hard to attract and retain employees.

As one island business succinctly put it in the report: “It’s a s—t show.”

Solutions, big and small

The report laid out numerous ideas to repair or at least mitigate the ferry disruptions.

Many suggestions focus on the ferries themselves: Reduce cancellations and schedule gaps, revise schedules and increase and expedite crew recruitment; find ways to load and unload faster or safely run ferries with reduced staffing; rebuild the Fauntleroy terminal with a maximal car holding capacity; add more sailings; and install restrooms in places like Fauntleroy Way for waiting passengers.

WSF has received $18 million dollars from the state legislature of new funding for workforce development and maintenance programs, but it will take years for those efforts to rebuild crew and vessel availability. In the meantime, WSF is still losing crew to retirement and vessels to wear-and-tear.

Vashon needs help from other agencies too, the report said, such as expanded water taxi service from King, Pierce and Kitsap Counties, better access to on-island health care and expanded public transit, commuter van and ride-share programs in general.

Incoming county councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, speaking to the Vashon Community Council on Nov. 16, identified the water taxi as a major priority.

“It is my interest in figuring out how we can create enhanced frequency of the water taxi to Vashon-Maury Island and … ensure that there (are) small Metro buses … deployed to the island,” she said.

Those methods of transportation are important for economic stability, housing security and access to healthcare, Mosqueda said, adding that she’ll continue weighing in on the ferry system overall.

“We have a lot of friends who supported my race from the state legislature, so I intend to keep those relationships up, and support any efforts I can at the state level,” Mosqueda said. “But, wearing the King County Council hat, [I] look forward to working more on more frequent and regular access on and off the island.”

Other ideas target the short-term economic crunch from the ferries: Consider temporary tax breaks or grants to aid emergency medical care and other urgent needs on the ferries, offer grants or overnight lodging to healthcare workers to encourage their work at island healthcare providers, or remove ticket expirations until the service issues are resolved.

Solutions also include steps the community can take, such as developing a commuter parent network for students who take the ferries to Vashon schools. Other suggestions focus on better using the tools already available, such as: Expanding access to and public awareness of medical priority loading on the ferries and improving communication between all parties about ferry disruptions.