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The fragile state of Washington's ferries

A recent disruption in ferry service to the San Juan Islands illuminated just how close Washington's ferry system is to the edge. Can a new government task force resuscitate the struggling system? 

The deck of a San Juan ferry shows its age.

The deck of a San Juan ferry shows its age. Minette Layne via Flickr (CC)

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka.

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka. Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)

Earlier this month, mechanical breakdowns on two ferries serving the San Juan Islands reminded local ferry users and Washington State Ferries (WSF) of the fragility of the system that connects the islands with the state's mainland and the wider world.

The San Juans' service is one of ten WSF-operated routes in the Puget Sound region. The ferry system lost a major source of funding in 1999, when voters approved a referendum that killed the motor vehicle excise tax, and investments in new boats have been minimal, leading to predictions of cascading misfortunes if too many of the aging vessels act up at the same time.

This month WSF and its patrons got a taste of how such a crisis might unfold. The San Juan ferries kept running, after a fashion, but that doesn't mean that the next concatenation of mishaps will pass by as harmlessly.

On October 7, the 44-year-old Yakima — which carries up to 144 cars between Anacortes and the four ferry-served islands — went down because of abnormal bearing wear on a propulsion motor shaft. The next day WSF shifted the 57-year-old, 87-car Evergreen State from its normal route circulating among the four islands to the Yakima's route. The 44-year-old, 34-car Hiyu, which had been on standby at WSF's Bainbridge Island maintenance facility, was pressed into service on the Evergreen State's normal routes.

On the morning of the 11th, however, the Hiyu's yeoman service came to an abrupt end. As WSF spokeswoman Marta Coursey explained, “crews discovered that its fire pump shaft, which provides water to the sprinkler system, was broken. . . The vessel was between Orcas and Shaw islands. All the vehicles and passengers were off-loaded on Orcas Island and the 144-car Elwha made an unscheduled stop at Orcas.”

Fortunately, the spanking new, 64-car Chetzemoka happened, that very day, to be completing its summer service on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route and was about to commence scheduled servicing time at an Anacortes shipyard. WSF redeployed the boat to the San Juans, and on Wednesday it began handling the inter-island traffic. As of Sunday the 16th, repairs to the Yakima had been completed, allowing WSF to put it back in service. The Evergreen State was restored to its inter-island duties, the Hiyu sent back to its standby dock, and the Chetzemoka — several days late — was returned to the Anacortes yard.

But not before the disruptions had temporarily reduced scheduled ferry runs. Which, it turns out, play a significant role in dictating how many island residents spend their time. Generally ferry riders rely on a skill resembling improvisation to catch ferries to Anacortes — due to space limitations, the only assurance of a car spot on an Anacortes-bound boat is a very early arrival at the ferry terminal on the island in question.

Lopez resident Gordon Jonasson, who was heading to the mainland on Tuesday the 11th, said WSF personnel handled things admirably. “They were ad-hocing the schedules. I was trying to reach the 1:35 [departure] and it just so happened they'd scheduled an all-stops boat for 1:35.” (A “Lopez only” boat normally leaves the island for Anacortes at that time.) The boat accommodated Jonasson's car, but he noted that he got to the ferry dock at 11:15 to wait. ”I suspect people that were going to go that day [but arrived at at the ferry line later] just cancelled,” he said.

Coming back from the mainland on Saturday, Jonasson arrived at the Anacortes terminal at 3:15 pm for a 4:30 ferry — the Evergreen State — which he got onto, but others close behind him in the queue had to wait for another sailing. The usual vessel, the Yakima, with room for 57 more cars, would have accommodated the “overloads” easily.

For San Juan Islands residents, vessel capacity is a crucial, but not the only, element of transportation decisions. The capacity of each boat going to Anacortes — the number of cars it can carry — is apportioned among the islands, where it will pick up motorists. WSF does not publish the crucial per-island quotas on its website; one has to get a slip of paper listing the quotas from ferry dock personnel. The highly variable time intervals between ferry sailings and, of course, seasonal traffic variations also figure in. Local motorists are used to calculating the time one has to get in line at the dock to be sure of a place on the boat. Still, the arithmetic can be tricky, even when weather or mechanical problems aren't playing havoc with the system.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Oct 26, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

Blaming the loss of the MVET for the predicament of the ferry system is a good one. This is the same system that retired lawmakers go to work for a second pension. Dead weight is the essence of this dept.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Oct 26, 3:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I've been riding since 1984, and they didn't have spares then or since then. The only spare, normally, is the second Bremerton boat. The removal of the MVET was a choice made by the legislature. The part that is criminal, is stripping it away without a replacement, just an occassional annual financial band aid. Can't have enough boats without funds. Get rid of the "made in Washington" requirement, and we could get more bang for our buck. Perhaps the only real choice is to remove WSF from state control.

Posted Wed, Oct 26, 3:40 p.m. Inappropriate

I have no problem giving the boat building to Todd Shipyard, the only place big enough to build the ferries. That way we get the money back in the form of taxes on the workers when they spend their salaries. And those purchases finance other local jobs, there is like a 9x to 15x multiplier on that money. A cheap ferry built somewhere else is just shipping the state's wealth somewhere else.

The MVET was hated because the rating system was totally ridiculous. Had the legislature changed the value tables to what they use now for Sound Transit excise taxes it would never have passed at the polls. That and a flat fee for those RV's that get driven for two weeks a year at most.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Oct 26, 6:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Actual, genuine tax reform would be even better, but that's so not gonna happen in our lifetime...

orino

Posted Wed, Oct 26, 8:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Built in Washington is nothing more than crporate welfare for the builders. A 9x to 15x multilier is wishful thinking. At Boeing the multoiplier is 3X. Secondly, open bidding would reduce the cost by half or so, and give us more boats for the same price. A lower pricw boat means I don't have to pay as much in taxes, and therefore have more to spend myself in the local economy.

Posted Thu, Oct 27, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Used: The multiplier reference is indeed overstated, but the notion that you could buy boats for half the price is beyond ridiculous. Check out pricing of truly comparable boats, and the costs are not that different. Think of the added costs of having to send all those state employees to Mississippi to inspect and review, and the cost of getting the vessel here. Washington does require 10-15 percent of the work done by apprentices -- we could get rid of that to significantly save costs, who cares about job training, right? We could cut costs by lowering our environmental standards to be just like Mississippi shipyards too, wouldn't that be a hoot? And so we'd spend maybe $80 million in Mississippi instead of $100 million here -- and think of all the economic activity we would have lost. Your "bargain" would be no bargain at all.

Posted Thu, Oct 27, 7:42 p.m. Inappropriate

I will NEVER vote for this man for governor or anything else:

Gubernatorial spokesman Scott Whiteaker commented that the task force's make-up, “represents all the different types of transportation in Washington state — legislative leaders, the governor — all of whom have in one way or another expressed a desire to make sure the ferries remain stable and running. I don't think that you necessarily have to be from a specific location to represent what the interests of that group are."

Total BS that representatives from ferry served locations are not part of this task force.

Posted Tue, Nov 1, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

I for one have not ridden the San Juan Ferries in many years. I did play the occasional tourist up there, spending my money in San Juan County, but got tired of rushing to the ferry early Sunday morning to sit in line all morning in hopes I could get a ferry off the island. How do residents put up with that kind of BS? For the past 20+ years, I have been heading north to the Gulf Islands, and riding the BC Ferries. I can make reservations for the ferry, and know what boat I can take to get on (and off) the island I am visiting. WA State Ferries need to join the 20th century -- they are doing a great dis-service to our tourists (and residents).

sokingres

Posted Fri, Nov 4, 8:14 a.m. Inappropriate

GaryP - agree with your comments about how the Legislature could have reformed the MVET. What's your documentation for former legislators getting hired by WSF? I'm not aware of any, but maybe there are some? And what about WSF's reducing its workforce over recent years to save money and be more efficient?

Larry Ehl

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