Public meeting with ferry chief, officials set for next Wednesday

This version of the story corrects the time of the Wednesday, Oct. 26, meeting. It begins at 6 p.m. at McMurray Middle School.

This version of the story corrects the time of the Wednesday, Oct. 26, meeting. It begins at 6 p.m. at McMurray Middle School.

After a rough summer for ferry travel on the triangle route resulting in frustrated commuters, Washington State Ferries officials are holding what they are calling “listening meetings” at each of the triangle route stops with Vashon’s happening next Wednesday night, Oct. 26, at McMurray Middle School.

Washington State Ferries (WSF) Chief Lynne Griffith will be in attendance to listen to islanders’ suggestions on how to fix the triangle route after recent months saw boats leaving half-empty and late with lines extending as far as two miles from the Fauntleroy dock. In a Friday interview, she said WSF knows the route is not working.

“We understand the service is not performing the way it needs to. We had a really rough summer, and we own that,” she said.

The problem over the summer became so frustrating that numerous islanders shared photos of half-empty boats on social media, at least one islander wrote a letter to the governor’s office and Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC) pushed for what it believed to be a solution to the loading issues at Fauntleroy: a bypass lane for pre-ticketed customers. In May, WSF officials attempted to create that bypass lane, but utilized colored sheets of paper to determine destination — Southworth or Vashon. The plan was abandoned shortly after its beginning as commuters complained the papers were making loading take even longer and boats were still leaving late and not completely full.

When asked about the problems in August, WSF officials said that a new schedule would be needed to thoroughly fix the situation: one that allows more “dwell time” between boats, ultimately meaning fewer sailings.

WSF Director of Operations, Greg Faust, said in August that the ferry system is gathering information for such a change and will work with the communities involved on details.

But on Friday, Griffith said she is not coming into these meetings with her mind made up about a fix.

“We need to make sure the citizens understand we’re not coming in there with any pre-determined solution,” she said. “We’re not going to fix this alone. People in the community need to sit down and help design a solution with the limitations of vessels, terminals and what sailing schedules need to be and agree on a proposal that can be fully vetted.”

However, Greg Beardsley, head of Vashon’s FAC, believes WSF does have a pre-determined solution. Last week, he said he feels the meetings are a going-around process.

“It’s the way they’ve acted since May, when they instituted some crazy plan that blew up,” he said. “We’re coming to the conclusion they’re trying to dumb down the abilities for Fauntleroy to handle traffic to force a schedule change.”

He’s frustrated because he believes a simple bypass lane — using the exit lane to load pre-ticketed passengers first — paired with a police officer or WSF employee directing traffic and pulling pre-ticketed vehicles out of line on Fauntleroy Way will go a long way to fix the issues that cause boats to leave late and unfilled. It was the plan that was supposed to go into effect in May.

“They (screwed it up), and it came off really bad. It’s almost like they intentionally made it blow up,” he said. “They’re trying to intentionally change how they handle vehicles so they can’t get boats full.”

But WSF spokesman Brian Mannion said the bypass lane fix is not that simple. He joined other WSF employees and Sen. Sharon Nelson earlier this year to watch the flow of traffic at Fauntleroy, and he said there are times when the line at the toll booths is moving slowly, but there are other times the Vashon tollbooth is empty because cars are stuck up the street.

“All of us waited in line and looked at it from all angles,” Mannion said. “From room on the dock to the traffic capacity of Fauntleroy Way and the number of workers on the dock, there’s a lot of constraints around there that plug into making (the bypass lane) not so simple.”

Griffith agrees and said that Fauntleroy “is a challenge ” due to the terminal and dock being far too small with no feasible way to expand. She said a bypass lane is “a portion of what needs to be looked at.”

“It’s one thing for one community, not the whole route,” she said. “We’ve got loading issues elsewhere. If we fix one or two things, it’s a domino effect that negatively effects something else. Yes, the bypass lane is on the table, but so are a half a dozen other things.”

She said she is aware that Vashon’s FAC thinks a bypass lane is the right thing to do, but wants “to hear from other people besides the FAC.”

“I’d like to see transit, schoolchildren and commuters really driven by being on time,” she said. “That’s going to get better conversation. Band-Aid approaches haven’t been working.”

Rob Harmon, an islander who wrote to The Beachcomber last month frustrated about seeing 56 cars and 10 motorcycles aboard a 5:10 p.m. Cathlamet sailing — the boat has a 124-vehicle capacity — also agrees a bypass lane would fix issues.

“We did this (a bypass lane for pre-ticketed vehicles) for many years until someone decided it should not be allowed anymore. If the ferry service is worried about the ‘first come first served’ issue, then I will make two points. First, folks who bought their tickets in advance are, to some degree, ‘first come.’ They have bought their tickets already. Second, having boats leave less than half full means everyone has to wait longer on the dock. So, folks going around the tollbooth help everyone,” he said in an email.

Other suggestions he offered include installing a traffic signal at Fauntleroy, beginning the parking restriction on Fauntleroy Way earlier in the day and removing the legislative priority that ferries leave on time, regardless of if they’re full or not.

Joining the ranks of frustrated islanders searching for answers is Susan Doerr, who wrote a letter to the governor last month about the delays at Fauntleroy. Griffith responded to the letter saying “WSF has tried several solutions intended to rapidly address customer concerns on the route. None has fixed the problem.”

Doerr asked for the ferry system to “start with the basics (filling the boats completely, moving pre-ticketed cars around the booths).”

“These are not solutions that require ‘an open and transparent process.’ This is how it was done for years. While these approaches did not solve all the problems, they certainly helped reduce the long waits that are now the norm at peak hours,” Doerr wrote.

Griffith is adamant that she needs people to share ideas to make the route work for all three communities.

“If we react to just Vashon or Fauntleroy interests, we do damage to others,” she said. “I’m not looking for a shouting match. I know they’re angry and frustrated. So are we.”

The meeting will be at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, at McMurray Middle School.