COMMENTARY: Work to fix Triangle Route will take time, do what you can to expedite ticketing

As summer winds down, tensions around ferries have ramped up. Summer always puts the greatest demands on the ferry system — I call it the summer surge. It affects service across the system, not just on Vashon.

But it seems that in recent years it has gotten worse. So, what is really going on?

First, despite claims to the contrary, your elected officials and the Washington State Ferries (WSF) do not plan to cut service to Vashon. We are committed to trying to solve the issues on the Triangle Route. In a recent Beachcomber op-ed, the author said he believes WSF is planning to cut routes (“Ferries officials need to consider more possible options, return to what worked,” Aug. 16). However, he acknowledges: “Ferries officials have said no determinations have been made about changing or dropping any sailings and that public input will be sought if that decision is made.” The author is correct, no changes are planned and if changes to the schedule are considered, that would happen only after a public process.

Second, it is important to clarify why boats are leaving when they aren’t full. It is true they used to leave at capacity. When the old, steel electric-class fleet was replaced several years ago, the new boats increased capacity throughout the ferry system, meaning more cars could go on each trip. But because our dock at Fauntleroy only holds about 80 cars, it means we were, and are, faced with loading constraints where up to one-third of the boat’s vehicles line up on the street versus on the dock.

It takes longer to load cars that aren’t on the dock, and WSF is then faced with the choice of holding a boat at the dock until it is full or having a boat offshore come in to expedite loading the next run. The dock constraints and loading constraints are a major problem. Adjustments to the schedule could potentially help with this issue, but we need to have that conversation without posing it as a “plan to cut service.”

I want to note that a change was made last spring to alter the time when cars cannot be parked in the lane designated for the ferries. It used to be that cars had to move at 3 p.m. — now they must move by 2 p.m. First and foremost, that has improved safety along Fauntleroy Way. Second, it has improved loading.

Last year I heard the frustration with the summer loads and I asked WSF to form the Triangle Improvement Task Force — recognizing that Fauntleroy, Vashon and Southworth needed to seek solutions together. Although it has been a difficult summer for ferry riders, this dedicated group of our neighbors has stepped up to try and improve travel for all three corners of the route.

A key response from the task force for summer loading was to have a splitter and an officer helping direct cars. I commute a lot and have seen that when they are at the dock, they have a positive impact on loading. However, they are only working during the week due to budget constraints. I am working with WSF and my colleagues in the Legislature to find a way to come up with funding for the officer and splitter seven days a week, with the aim to expedite loading.

For now, here are three things we can do to help things move — even as summer comes to an end:

1. Buy ferry tickets online and encourage your visitors to do the same. Tickets can be purchased here: WSF also plans to release an app soon so riders can more easily buy tickets anytime, anywhere.

2. Be prepared to present a ticket, card or cash as you (or your visitors) approach the toll both — this helps save valuable minutes that add up when a ferry is being loaded.

3. Buy in advance at a tollbooth. If you can, purchase multi-ride cards to use throughout the month. You can also scan and send them to visitors if you are willing to pay for their fares.

Islanders may also want to explore raising funds to hire a respected traffic engineer to look at the situation, review what the task force has developed, review suggestions islander Greg Beardsley has made that haven’t been accepted and make an independent recommendation. This could provide a fresh look and supplement, or possibly improve, discussion of options. Hiring independent experts is what we did when we were fighting the mine, and it provided valuable support for our community.

As a long-time islander and regular commuter, I know well how the ferries impact our lives, especially during the summer surge. I will continue to work to improve funding for the system and to replace our aging fleet. Ferries allow us to live in this beautiful, rural community, which we all love, and the ferry system needs additional funding and support particularly to manage the summer surge.

— Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) represents the 34th Legislative District, which includes Vashon, West Seattle and parts of Burien.