Service planner funding could herald updates to two-boat schedule

But change may not come quickly.

Now that it has money to hire a second “service planner,” Washington State Ferries plans to update the much-maligned two-boat schedule linking Vashon with Fauntleroy and Southworth, a WSF spokesperson said Monday.

But change may not come quickly.

WSF first must recruit, hire and train the new service planner — a process that usually takes a few months, WSF Public Information Officer Ian Sterling said in an email.

He also noted that WSF has had trouble filling its other, previously funded planner position, which has been vacant since July.

“It’s impossible to predict when a two-boat schedule update process may begin,” Sterling added.

Once it does begin, he said, it will be much like the process that produced a new three-boat schedule for the so-called“Triangle Route” in 2019.

That took more than two years to complete. When asked, Sterling wouldn’t say whether the two-boat schedule update might also take that long.

“The timeline is TBD [to be determined] at this point,” he said. “We’ll do it as quickly as possible while still following all the necessary steps for outreach and input.”

WSF announced plans to update the schedule after Gov. Jay Inslee signed a Supplemental Transportation Budget that includes $169,000 for the added service planner. The appropriation was a top priority of Islanders for Ferry Action, an advocacy group convened last year by the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce to address the island’s ferry woes.

Wendy Aman, an IFA leader and member of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, said WSF should consider smaller quick fixes to alleviate some of the two-boat schedule’s worst problems before the full update is completed.

“We all understand they have to go through their process,” she said. “All I’m asking is that [new WSF head Steve] Nevey sit down his captains, the dock people and the crews to see what can be done now … I hope they work as hard as we [Islanders for Ferry Action] worked to get the money for the new service planner.”

Triangle Route service was reduced from three boats to two early in the COVID-19 outbreak. After promising several times to restore three-boat service shortly, WSF said in January that two-boat service would most likely continue until 2028 because of ongoing staffing and fleet issues.

The two-boat schedule is plagued by chronic cancellations and delays, and has gaps of up to 2-1/2 hours between weekday sailings from Vashon to Fauntleroy. Ferry officials have admitted it doesn’t work.

But they also said they lacked staff to fix the schedule. Hence the $169,000 appropriation for the second service planner.

The two-boat timetable was crafted years ago as a backup, to take effect only for short periods of time when one of the three boats then on the route was out of service. It’s “long overdue for an update,” Sterling said.

“While we’ve received input from Vashon, one of the first steps in the process to update the schedule will be outreach to customers of all three terminals on the Triangle, to identify the existing areas of constraint and opportunities for improving the schedule’s on-time performance,” he said.

Aman said one priority for early action should be the weekday morning timetable. Because of frequent delays, WSF cancels about one-third of all the 10:40 a.m. sailings from Fauntleroy in order to get the boats back on schedule, she said.

Vashon shouldn’t have to wait years to fix that, she said: “If it’s going to be this way [a two-boat schedule] for a long time — be creative. Be responsive.”

In addition to money for the additional service planner, the Supplemental Transportation Budget that Gov. Jay Inslee signed last week includes $3.17 million for King County’s Water Taxi to add four midday weekday round trips between Vashon and downtown Seattle.

The county has said the additional trips should start July 1.

The budget also includes millions to beef up WSF staffing and start building new hybrid-electric boats.

Eric Pryne is a retired Seattle Times journalist.