It’s still not smooth sailing for Washington State Ferries

As life now resumes in its “new normal” fashion, it is almost shocking to be reminded of what happened to us all in March of 2020 — and how deeply the pandemic impacted our maritime highway to the mainland.

The next time you are stranded for an hour or more on a dark ferry dock, minutes too late for a boat that is pulling away from the dock, here is some highly recommended reading to pass the time: “Washington State Ferries Service Restoration Plan — February 2023 Update,” viewable at

We’re not kidding. As 18-page government documents go, this one actually makes for almost gripping reading, as it lays out the framework for WSF’s plans to finally restore full service to all of its routes — a process that began in January 2022 and will continue through 2030, in the case of the Anacortes/Sidney, BC route.

But the document does more than that — it also provides a time capsule of the profound effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the ferry system, which are still ongoing.

As life now resumes in its “new normal” fashion, it is almost shocking to be reminded of what happened to us all in March of 2020 — and how deeply the pandemic impacted our maritime highway to the mainland.

In March of 2020, the report details, total ridership had fallen 78 percent compared to the same week in 2019. Vehicle ridership fell by 67 percent, with walk-on passengers almost completely disappearing: ridership in that category fell by 93 percent.

To read those statistics is to remember the vast emptiness of public places that happened in 2020, and to feel the cold tingle of fear and confusion that accompanied that time.

And we’re still not all the way back, in terms of our collective comfort in being out and about in the world.

Even in 2022, total ferry system ridership rose to only roughly 73 percent of 2019 pre-COVID-19 numbers, with vehicles climbing to 83 percent and walk-on customers up to 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

The corresponding drop in revenue for WSF has been staggering.

For the 40 years prior to the pandemic, WSF’s fare recovery rate (the percentage of operating costs covered by direct fares and miscellaneous revenue) averaged about 75 percent. The fare recovery rate is now at about 58 percent. And according to the report, that gap in revenue will be filled with COVID relief funds only through 2025.

The report also details the catastrophe that happened in terms of staffing for WSF during the pandemic, but thankfully, also notes some progress.

Due to funding provided by the Legislature in the spring of 2022, the report says, WSF has been able to change the way it recruits, hires, and trains employees for marine positions. In 2022, WSF hired 202 fleet personnel. But with 42 retirements and 99 separations for other reasons, that was only a net gain of 61 new hires.

Read on, in the report, and you’ll find clearly written explanations for much else that ails our ferry system, including the deeply complex issues WSF faces in terms of building new vessels for its aging fleet.

But the report also provides a measure of hope that the leadership of WSF does understand the magnitude of the work before them, as they attempt to make our ferry lifeline more strong and more reliable.

The report also provides perspective on those long waits for ferries that we have endured in the past three years, and will no doubt continue to endure even as trials roll out for the return of a three-boat system on the Triangle Route.

The pandemic didn’t break our ferry system altogether, but it will still take a long time for it to return even to the level of service Vashon had in 2019.

And we agree with Justin Hirsch, a member of our Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee, who reminds us that the service we had in 2019 wasn’t good enough.

We urge islanders to get informed about the magnitude of issues now being addressed by WFS — not the least of which will be the design of a better ferry dock at Fauntleroy.

And we hope that more islanders, instead of erupting in anger when a ferry ride doesn’t go well, will choose to do something else instead: to passionately advocateWSF and our state legislature, as informed and thoughtful citizens, for better service both to our own island and throughout the ferry system.