A long-awaited milestone for islanders will arrive in early April when Washington State Ferries (WSF) will begin a lengthy trial process to restore three-boat service to the Triangle Route serving Vashon/Southworth/Fauntleroy.
The timeline for the trials — which are expected to result in a return to the full weekly sailing schedule of the route by the fall — was confirmed in a Feb. 28 update to the WSF Service Restoration plan, viewable here.
What’s more, the MV Cathlamet — which has been undergoing extensive repairs since July 28, 2022, after it crashed into protective pilings near the Fauntleroy Terminal — will return to service in April, making the trial restoration process possible, said John Vezina, WSF’S director of planning, customer and government relations.
A WSF investigation of the crash has now wrapped up with interviews and a physical investigation, and is now in draft form, said WSF spokesperson Ian Sterling. It is expected to be finalized and released in the coming weeks, pending approval from the U.S. Coast Guard, which is also still conducting a separate investigation.
The combined cost of the repairs to the Cathlamet and the Fauntleroy dock, said Sterling, is expected to come in at $7.7 million, with all that amount, except approximately $1 million, covered by insurance.
Another component of the trial restoration plan for the Triangle Route was set in place last week, with the replacement of the MV Sealth, which has a 90-car capacity, with the larger MV Kittitas on the Triangle Route.
All three ferries serving the route during the coming trials, Vezina said, will have the capacity for 124 cars.
The announcement comes after years of diminished service on the Triangle Route, and throughout the ferry system, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
These included a catastrophic drop in ridership early in the pandemic, followed by severe staffing shortages due to illness, retirements, firings necessitated by to Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for state workers, and a general worldwide shortage of mariners.
Staff retention has also been threatened in recent years, said Vezina, by a marked uptick in abusive language and behavior toward ferry workers by riders. Last December, WSF addressed the issue by rolling out a new code of conduct for riders, which stipulates that such behavior may result in time-specific “no trespass” orders from law enforcement.
Vezina expressed frustration at the abusive behavior — some of which had taken place at Vashon terminals.
“These are the people who are showing up to get you where you need to go,” he said, referring to the ferry workers who had been mistreated. “It makes retention that much more difficult.”
Triangle is fifth route to be restored
The Feb. 28 update to WSF’s Service Restoration Plan — first released in March of 2022 — outlines steps to restore service throughout its system on a route-by-route basis, as well as details complex ongoing considerations regarding WSF’s fleet and workforce.
The first of the eight routes — Anacortes/San Juan Island, Seattle/Bainbridge, Clinton/Mukilteo and Edmonds/Kingston — have now been restored to 95% reliability, according to the updated document.
Next up, in early April, is the Triangle Route — which according to Vezina, will have a longer trial period than other previously restored routes, due to the complexity of the three-boat schedule.
Vezina shared an email he had sent to legislators on Feb. 28, detailing overall challenges still faced by WSF as it restores service, and specifically outlining the timeline of restoring the Triangle Route.
“Because the three-boat schedule is so different from the two-boat, [the Triangle Route] will be more challenging than trials on other routes, so we’ll be communicating with customers regularly about each day’s expected schedule,” he wrote. “We understand that this may lead to customer frustration, but we believe we’ll have the crewing available to operate the three-boat schedule most of the time.”
Currently, Vezina added, WSF expects weekday service to be restored to the route by the end of May and for WSF to be able to fully restore the full weekly sailing schedule by fall of 2023.
Other communities still waiting
While the plan delivered good news regarding the Triangle Route, other routes still have long waits for restoration.
The Seattle/Bremerton route is not expected to begin trials for restoration until October; and Port Townsend/Coupeville will remain on one-boat service through 2023, with restoration to two-boat service not expected until the spring of 2024.
And, in an announcement that was bitterly received by many in border communities, WSF has announced that restoration of its Anacortes/Sidney, British Columbia route is now not expected until at least the spring of 2030. The decision was due, WSF said, to a lack of vessels, specifically a vessel certified to sail internationally.
Island leaders weigh in
Some Vashon community leaders, whose organizations and institutions have been particularly impacted by reduced ferry service, said they were heartened by the news that trials were underway to fully restore the Triangle Route’s service.
At Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, where longtime staffing shortages are now being addressed by new Fire Chief Matt Vinci, the two-boat system has been only part of the problem in terms of providing timely medical aid to islanders.
The upcoming trials to restore service, said Vinci, were “good news, but only one piece of a very challenging puzzle which includes the daily staffing of our fire station, and the long wait times we are experiencing in hospital emergency rooms [on the mainland].”
The biggest immediate benefit of restoring the three-boat system, he said, will be shortened wait times for first responders to return to the island after transporting patients. Current wait times for this leg of the journey, he said, can now stretch from two to three hours, depleting the station of staff to respond to consecutive calls on the island.
Slade McSheehy, superintendent of Vashon Island School District (VISD) said that he meets regularly with family members of students from West Seattle who commute to the island by ferry to attend school.
The district typically enrolls between 250 and 270 commuter students each year, he said.
“Restoration has been a priority for some time,” he said. “They are very excited about it.”
He also said that the district’s staff includes about 25 people who commute to their jobs from Seattle — and that the commute had been made more difficult, during the pandemic, by the closure of the West Seattle Bridge and the reduced ferry schedule.
With those two issues resolved, he said, “Hopefully, we’ll see [more] stability in our staffing.”
Ferry advocate urges more to get involved
Justin Hirsch, a member of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, an appointed group of three islanders who regularly meet with ferry officials, also said he was glad to hear about WSF’s efforts to restore the Triangle Route to full service in the near future.
But he also strongly cautioned that systemic problems caused by WSF’s aging fleet and diminished workforce will not be quickly solved and that islanders needed to up their advocacy for both legislative solutions for WSF as well an improved Fauntleroy dock — a project still in its planning phase.
At a recent public forum, WSF assistant chief Patty Rubstello said that WSF has narrowed the options for the new dock down to two: keep the dock at its current size and location, or replace it with a dock that would hold 124 to 186 vehicles.
Hirsch is a strong advocate for an expanded dock; without it, he said, “We go back to the same level of service we had [before] March of 2020” — a time when boats regularly departed the terminal prior to being fully loaded, due to the split function of both ticketing and loading that the current dock necessitates.
He urged islanders to contribute comments to WSF in support of an expanded dock with a capacity to hold all cars waiting to load on the dock. Making island voices heard, he warned, was critical as he had been told that comments received thus far by WSF are evenly split between the two dock options.
He also invited islanders to attend regular meetings of Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, which are attended remotely by ferry officials. Upcoming meetings are scheduled for 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, April 26, June 28, August 23, and Oct. 25, at Vashon Library.
To communicate with the island’s Ferry Advisory Committee, email VashonFAC@gmail.com.