Officials, legislators look for ferry fixes as woes mount

Staffing, COVID-19 and a smaller fleet of vessels are among the challenges WSF faces.

With the conclusion of 2021 and the new year well underway, Washington State Ferries (WSF) continues to face challenges exacerbated by staffing, COVID-19, budgeting and a smaller fleet of vessels.

“I know many of you are frustrated and feel like we’re not serving you — this ferry service that you need and rely on, and I have to say, I absolutely agree with you,” said WSF Assistant Secretary Patty Rubstello during a Jan. 11 community meeting.

Ridership has yet to peak back up to pre-pandemic levels, as state ferry ridership in 2021 rose to 72% of pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, WSF served almost 24 million passengers, but in 2021 almost 17.3 million passengers traveled on the ferries.

Interestingly, for the second time since 1951 and for the second year in the row, WSF has carried more vehicles than walk-on passengers in 2021.

Staffing at WSF continues to be an issue, as the agency experiences an increase in retirements and is impacted by the global shortage of qualified mariners.

As of Oct. 19, 2021, WSF lost 132 employees due to the COVID-19 vaccination mandate, with the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) classifying 121 of those as separations and eleven as retirements. Currently, WSF is looking to fill about 100 more roles at the agency, not accounting for attrition.WSF did, however, hire more than 200 new employees in 2021.

WSF also estimates that about 5.7% of its workforce may retire each year, driving its need for a significant investment in attracting, retaining and strengthening its workforce as part of its long-range plan, said Rubstello.

Similarly, the alternative service routes that were put into place statewide as of Oct. 16, 2021, were in part an attempt to rely on fewer crew, said Nicole McIntosh, Chief of Staff at WSF. For example, from Oct. 1 to 17, WSF experienced 341 crew-related cancellations. However, in November, there were 37 cancellations due to crew.

According to McIntosh, the team at WSF is working to bring normal service back to all routes, but “it may be a slow process.” In addition, the Omicron variant and COVID-19 have further complicated matters. In the month of December, there were 75 absences due to COVID. But from January 1 to 10, the number swelled to 245 COVID-related absences at WSF.

When asked later about the level of service passengers could expect in the next few weeks during a Q&A session during the Jan. 11 meeting, McIntosh said that WSF would continue to focus on the alternative service plan.

“Please don’t expect additional vessels at this time; we simply don’t have the crew for that,” said McIntosh. “Within the next month, we should have a plan on what that looks like in terms of restoring service.”

The vessels within the fleet also require attention, as WSF’s long-range plan that was released in 2019 calls for 16 new ferries to be built by 2040 to stabilize the fleet. In the shorter term, WSF is currently operating with 21 out of its 24 ferries, as some are out of service for repairs and maintenance.

One vessel that is currently out of service is the Wenatchee, after an engine fire that occurred on April 22, 2021. The fire was believed to have been caused by a crankcase explosion, according to reporting by the San Juan Islander. The Wenatchee is to be converted into a hybrid-electric ferry, which will begin later this year.

To assist the ferry system in meeting its goals, such as attracting employees to WSF and stabilizing the fleet of ferries, Governor Jay Inslee has proposed a one-time transfer of general funds into the transportation budget, specifically to the ferries’ treasury accounts, said Rick Singer, Director of Finance and Administration at WSF.

These proposed projects include:

1) $40 million to retain and attract employees to WSF.

2) $324 million over three years to fully fund the first 144-car hybrid-electric ferry and funds for a second 144-car hybrid-electric ferry. After the conversion of the Wenatchee, WSF will also have funds to convert another vessel into a hybrid-electric ferry (most likely the Tacoma). Funds from the $324 million will include ferry charging infrastructure at the Seattle, Bainbridge and Clinton/Mukilteo ferry terminals.

3) $14.1 million ($14 million from the Puget Sound Capital Construction Account, $100,000 from Puget Sound Finance Officers Association) to “support key efforts to improve efficiency.” For example, funds from this are being used to replace WSF’s dispatch system that was in need of replacing.

WSF plans to use the funds to hire a recruitment firm to do outreach nationally at maritime academies and throughout the Northwest in order to build up its workforce, said Singer.

In addition, WSF is beginning to implement the Pre-Apprenticeship & Supportive Services Grant Program (PASS Program), which is currently already in place at WSDOT. The PASS Program, once in place with the ferries, is designed to help women and minorities get jobs within WSF, said Singer.

As for community members who want to remain involved and engaged with WSF issues, Rubstello and her colleagues advise the community to engage in several ways.

“Your legislators are interested in hearing from you—of what your needs and wants are,” said Rubstello.

Representative Eileen Cody provided a comment on the situation via email, calling WSF “vital” to the district and the state.

“We are in a critical period where the state is grappling with a loss of revenue in our transportation system, workforce shortages in our ferries, and a need for new ferries in our fleet. The bulk of the changes needed to get us back on track will come in the Transportation Budget and I am supportive of increased funding to ensure we have competitive wages and recruitment efforts to get more Washington workers into good-paying ferry jobs,” said Cody. “In the governor’s proposed budget, it seeks to move from season-based hiring practices to year-round recruitment and hiring, which I support as it will help ensure we can keep our schedules on-time with appropriate staffing levels.

Cody also said she was hopeful that future transportation budgets prioritize building out more ferries and electrification of our fleet.

“With some federal infrastructure funds addressing transportation needs, I am advocating we make use of that by addressing the gaps in funding that is affecting our ferry system while we find long-term solutions to our revenue shortfall in coming years,” she said.

Representative Joe Fitzgibbon also stressed that additional investments in the ferry system are critical to improving the situation at WSF.

“Our top priority for the ferry system is to improve reliability. Unfortunately, crew shortages have led to a large increase in the number of canceled runs and the frequency with which service on the Triangle route drops to two boats or when the Point Defiance-Tahlequah route is canceled entirely,” said Fitzgibbon in a statement sent to The Beachcomber. “I will be working hard this session to ensure that the governor’s proposed investments in ferry reliability are a floor, not a ceiling, and that the Legislature funds all of these proposals, and makes additional investments beyond that, because of the huge impacts to residents of ferry-dependent communities like Vashon and Maury islands.”

Senator Joe Nguyen, in speaking with The Beachcomber via phone interview, commented that some of the issues WSF faced were due to “systemic underinvestment.” With funds from the governor coming into use for WSF, Nguyen wants to tackle the issues at WSF holistically going forward.

Rubstello also mentioned the 13 Ferry Advisory Committees that are appointed by county councils to advise WSF on issues impacting passengers. Community members are also able to engage with them about issues they see by contacting them through the WSF website:

Emily Scott, the chair of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, said that the main concerns that she has heard from islanders were related to service disruptions, such as cancellations and schedule changes. Such impacts, said Scott, concerned community members as it translates to disruptions in their normal routines and decreased ability to respond during medical or personal emergency situations.

“I think it’s important to remember that, while WSF has long experienced system challenges that are a result of under-investment from the state legislature, COVID has had a profound impact on their ability to provide consistent and reliable service,” said Scott in an email sent to The Beachcomber. “This is not unique to WSF and is true of pretty much every transportation industry, whether public or private.”

Justin Hirsch has been a member of the Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee since June 2018, said while the Ferry Advisory Committee has given feedback to WSF many times about issues experienced by the community, the Committee does “not [have] a lot of sway [on] what ferries does.” For instance, said Hirsch, in May 2019 the Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee provided comments on the summer schedule, but received a response back in September 2019.

While this can be “underwhelming,” said Hirsch, he is optimistic going forward, as projects such as the new Fauntleroy Ferry dock project are underway.