(Staff Photo) Washington State Ferries cited an aging workforce, COVID-19 cases and quarantines among the reasons a system-wide schedule change was necessary.

(Staff Photo) Washington State Ferries cited an aging workforce, COVID-19 cases and quarantines among the reasons a system-wide schedule change was necessary.

Local leaders detail big impacts of reduced ferry service

WSF announced that the triangle route will operate on a two-boat schedule for an indefinite period of time.

Washington State Ferries (WSF) announced that beginning on Saturday, Oct. 16, it will temporarily reduce schedules for an indefinite period of time on many of its routes in order to “provide more predictable and reliable travel.”

For islanders, this impacts the north-end service going to Fauntleroy and Southworth. Instead of having three boats in operation, WSF will be operating on a two-boat schedule. The south-end ferry service remains unchanged, as it continues on one-boat service, as normal.

WSF cites an aging workforce, COVID-19 cases, and quarantines among the reasons a schedule change was necessary.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve worked hard to maintain reliable service, completing the vast majority of sailings,” said Patty Rubstello, head of WSF. “However, to better reflect the service we can currently provide and to minimize last-minute cancellations due to a lack of crew, we made this difficult decision to adjust our schedules.”

Vashon is not the only community feeling the crunch of reduced ferry service—Bainbridge Island, Bremerton, Edmonds, Mukilteo and the San Juan Islands have also seen reductions in their ferry service.

WSF has also stated that it is in the process of recruiting new employees, but the pandemic has not allowed them to hire or train new recruits at the same rate prior to the pandemic. In addition, WSF says it struggles to find qualified mariners. However, more than 150 new crewmembers have been hired during 2021.

For islanders, a reduction in ferry service has a myriad of impacts.

Businesses across the island, including Cheryl Lubbert, of Nashi Orchards, have already felt the impact of inconsistent ferry schedules. According to Lubbert, who is also the president of the Vashon Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said the ferry schedules have been making business challenging since May of this year.

”It impacts everything,” said Lubbert. “Employment, it impacts your raw materials, it impacts your customer base.”

“While I can’t quantify what the impact is in a dollar amount, I can tell you that these are the things that make Vashon unattractive for people to come to and it certainly makes it incredibly hard to make a business that’s viable,” added Lubbert.

At Vashon Island School District, 269 off-island students travel on the ferries to come to school. Of these commuter students, 31 attend Chautauqua Elementary School, 89 attend McMurray Middle School and 149 attend Vashon High School.

“Once we heard about the two-boat schedule, we immediately began to study the impacts on our school schedules,” said Superintendent Slade McSheehy. “The impacts are not as great on our elementary students, however, our secondary students have to arrive 20 minutes earlier which deprives students of necessary sleep as well as impacts supervision at buildings. At this time, we do not have a solution but are working closely together with transportation to explore all options.”

The reduction in ferry service also has implications for Vashon Island Fire and Rescue, especially in emergency cases where individuals need to be transported off-island for medical care.

“The Fire District always has concerns about reduced ferry service to the island,” said Fire Chief Charles Krimmert. “The ferries are the main way we get people to the hospital and reduced service from the ferries degrades our ability to quickly get someone to the medical care they need. During that time, we have one less ambulance crew here on the island when we have multiple calls for aid. So, our small operation doesn’t have a big fleet of aid cars and when one is off the island for a significant amount of time that degrades our ability to help the sick and injured.”

According to Krimmert, reduced ferry service also causes a 60% increase in the time it takes to transport an individual to the hospital, return the ambulance back to the island, and prep it for the next dispatch.

Krimmert also said that those wondering about utilizing helicopters for patient transport should understand there are “even fewer helicopters than there are ambulances,” and helicopter transports must be reserved for the “most severe life and death patient situations.”

David Vogel, the president of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, also spoke to The Beachcomber, saying at the time of his interview that the council had not yet met on the issue or taken a position, but would be looking at it at their next meeting. He said that he was sure the community council would try to link itself with similarly affected communities in order to address the impacts of the cuts.

Vogel added that getting the attention of the Washington state legislature to increase funding for WSF would also be important.

“We need to make them care about the ferries, and show them the state as a whole will lose if the ferries are not working properly,” said Vogel.

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