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Best of 2011: 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)

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at coverage of the changing Northwest. This story, by Crosscut writer C.B. Hall, first appeared October 26.

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.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Dec 31, 7:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Replace the state's investment in floating hulls currently deployed on certain central Sound routes (e.g. Edmonds-Kingston, Seattle-Bremerton and possibly Seattle-Bainbridge) with single a cross-Sound bridge between Edmonds and Kingston on the Kitsap Peninsula -- a five-mile crossing.

Unfortunately, with $4.3 billion currently being lavished on the replacement for the 520 bridge, a cross-Sound bridge would likely run multiples of that, what with all the bike lanes and such frou-frou. And thus, tolls would easily reach $20-25, using 520's $3.50 as a 'yardstick'. (I wouldn't suggest that, but the ignorant, stubborn and just plain mean folks who control transportation in Washington undoubtedly would.)

I'm sure such a proposal would be met with derision by environmentalists, ferry unions and others. But contractors would love the work and a bridge would offer *vastly greater* cross-Sound capacity than a fleet of 14-knot per hour ferries that require long loading times on each side.

A bridge between Edmonds and Kingston would serve as the best connector between the mainland and the economically-challenged but recreation-rich Olympic Peninsula that otherwise requires a very, very long drive to reach (and often a long wait for a ferry.) That part of the state is *harmed*, not aided, by the presence of cross-Sound ferries.

Until sufficiently forward-looking, higher capacity measures are sought, the ailing state ferry system will toil in its self-inflicted misery.

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