Tahlequah ferry out for days, frustrating Islanders and forcing some to be creative

Ferry service from the south end of Vashon was to be suspended for three days, from Monday until today, the first weekday suspension for the Island and a sign of the severe difficulties facing the state’s financially strapped ferry system, state officials said.

The service disruption occurred after the Rhododendron, the 48-car ferry that normally sails from Tahlequah to Point Defiance, experienced mechanical troubles — just one week after it returned to the waters since its last round of repairs. Because of other ferries being out of service, Washington State Ferries (WSF) did not have another boat to assign to the route, unless it reduced Vashon’s north-end triangle route from its normal three-boat service to two boats, officials said.

Calling it “a tough call,” WSF officials decided to suspend the Island’s lesser-used south-end service rather than disrupt north-end service for the second time this year, said Traci Brewer-Rogstad, the system’s deputy chief executive. In late January, the north-end service was reduced to two ferries for about a month.

“We were trying to pick the lesser of two evils, knowing that no matter what decision we make, people are going to be upset,” Brewer-Rogstad said.

Islanders were, in fact, upset.

“It’s just unconscionable,” said Alan Mendel, head of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee. “I don’t think they recognize the situation we’re in on Vashon Island. They forget that we’re an island.”

Noting that he hadn’t gotten a response to his e-mails and letters to top WSF officials, he added, “They just ignore us. We’re the stepchild in the system.”

State Rep. Sharon Nelson, who uses the Tahlequah route to get to Olympia during the legislative session, said she, too, is extremely upset by WSF’s decision. Her commute was an hour longer because of the move.

“This is crippling,” she said.

Nelson also fears it will only continue, since there is no end to WSF’s woes on the horizon. In a meeting with David Moseley, the newly appointed head of the ferry system, she and other lawmakers urged him to put into place plans that can help ferry-users before the next crisis occurs. Charter buses that can get people off the Island may be in order, she said.

“It’s essentially isolating people who don’t have the option to drive around,” she said of the current suspension of services.

The south-end ferry serves about 1,800 riders a day, many of them commuters who work in Tacoma and students who attend either Tacoma’s private schools or its colleges. Ferry officials worked overtime to get news of the service suspension to Islanders, sending numerous e-mail alerts to riders and personally calling those people who they know use the south-end ferry.

Dave Hattery, for instance, an Islander who has a daughter who commutes to Tacoma for school, said his family received a call from WSF spokesperson Susan Harris over the weekend.

Because of the advance warning, his wife, Suzanne, got on the phone Sunday and spent hours working out a plan. The result? Hattery, who owns a fishing boat, ferried six students from Quartermaster Harbor and a seventh from Dockton to a pier in Tacoma, where a school bus was waiting for them.

One of the students did homework while on the boat, he said. Others seemed to enjoy it.

“It was a really fun,” he said.

But noting the difficulty that the suspension could continue to pose, he added that he’s concerned about the ramifications of no south-end service should a large fire or some other disaster occur.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” he said.

Beverly Naidus, a professor at University of Washington’s Tacoma campus, said the situation Monday was “hellacious.” Normally a carpooler, she had to leave her home nearly three hours earlier than usual to guarantee a spot on the north-end ferry, spend more money and use far more gas.

“It’s an economic and ecological disaster,” she said. “I met all these Tacoma refugees on the boat this morning, and we were all lamenting the situation.”

The last few months have been a particularly hard stretch for ferry riders. WSF lost four boats unexpectedly last fall, has had other boats need unexpected repairs and has had to squeeze in routine maintenance as well, ferry officials said.

The latest troubles are on top of financial difficulties that started eight years ago, when the state Legislature — following the lead of a statewide initiative that was ruled unconstitutional — axed the motor vehicle excise tax, a levy that provided the ferry system with 22 percent of its operating revenue.

Brewer-Rogstad said the service suspension underscores the ferry system’s financial and operational troubles.

“Take four boats out of the system, and you’re just completely pinched,” she said.

Ferry officials, she said, have been on “heightened alert” over the past several weeks, bracing for more bad news.

“The phone rings over the weekend, and you’re just gritting your teeth, hoping it’s not another boat out of service,” she said.

FAC to meet

The Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee will meet at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow, Thursday, March 6, in the McMurray Middle School library.