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?

Crosscut archive image.

Washington state's newest ferry, the Chetzemoka.

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?

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.

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.

The disruptions this month demonstrated, in Jonasson's view, “how close to the edge WSF is operating.”

Not everyone in the San Juans shared Jonasson's favorable view of WSF's response to the incident. Before October 11 — the day the Hiyu failed — was through, the San Juan County Council had fired off a letter to David Moseley, assistant Washington State Department of Transportation secretary for the Ferries Division, complaining that “commuters were not made aware of the problem at their respective islands until the ferry docked.” This led, the council wrote, to a lot of wasted time on the travelers' part. The council requested “immediate” action to improve communication and create a “Plan B” inter-island schedule for emergencies. Responding on October 20, Moseley conceded that higher-ups did not keep dock personnel and the public properly informed, and that the events highlighted the need to update WSF emergency service plan.

Asked what would have happened if the Hiyu's difficulties had arisen during the summer, when the Chetzemoka had yet to complete its peak-season service on the Port Townsend route, WSF spokeswoman Coursey said, “I don't know — probably nobody would speculate on that. We're just fortunate that that didn't happen.”

Howie Rosenfeld, a member of the San Juan County Council and co-chair of the county's Ferry Advisory Committee, pointed out that the Chetzemoka's availability saved the islands from a complete loss of the inter-island ferry, which locals rely on for routine commuting. A look at WSF's “vessel breakdown response matrix” — the emergency service plan — confirms that only one vessel, the Hiyu, is routinely available to pinch-hit in lanes that would otherwise be minus a boat.

“That's system-wide,” Rosenfeld underscored.

Meanwhile, amid the dislocations, WSF's newest ferry, the 64-car Kennewick, was undergoing its first sea trials. WSF is tentatively scheduled to accept the vessel's delivery from the shipbuilder, Seattle's Vigor Shipyards, by month's end. The group hopes to put the craft in service on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route next January, according to Coursey. Under a mandate from this year's legislature, WSF has meanwhile begun collecting a 25-cent surcharge to help fund construction of a new 144-car ferry. That craft, as yet unnamed, is expected to enter service early in 2014, allowing the provider to retire the Evergreen State. The new boat's impact on route assignments in the WSF system is still under discussion, Coursey stated.

More broadly, the future of ferry service will depend, in at least some measure, on the recommendations of the Connecting Washington Task Force, established this summer and chaired by Gov. Chris Gregoire. The governor charged the group with “reviewing statewide transportation needs, [and] recommending the most promising investment options and revenue sources to address top priorities.” However, if one excludes Kitsap County commissioner Charlotte Garrido, the 31-member task force includes no one from a “ferry constituency” or WSF — a point not lost on islanders.

“We're not completely bereft of representation,” Rosenfeld said, alluding to Garrido, “but it would be nice if it would be stronger. It's a really good group of people. I think it's more important there isn't anyone representing tourism, and tourism is the number-four economic driver in the state.”

For the San Juans, of course, tourism is the sine qua non of prosperity.

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."

“Ferries have been listed as one of the needs in the state for investment," Whiteaker explained. "Right now [the task force's members] haven't started talking about specific solutions to problems, [but] the next two meetings are going to start getting into much more specificity.”

The group is charged with completing its work by late November.


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