With service disruptions mounting, Washington State Ferries should stop imposing policies from the top while ignoring advice from those with actual maritime experience, including the passengers themselves.
There was a time when the people running Washington State Ferries actually knew something about managing a ferry system. It’s hard to know exactly when that ended. Perhaps it was when the agency hired the former head of Pierce Transit bus service to run WSF. Whenever it was, ferry management has stripped itself of maritime knowledge.
If you don’t use the ferries and don’t care, I suggest you review the state transportation budget. The line item “Connecting Washington State,” for $1.160 billion, is what it’s all about. The many miles of expensive state highways connecting small towns in Eastern Washington provide farm-to-market access that is good for the farms and good for the markets. All of the transportation components — highways, bridges, tunnels, railroads, airports and, yes, ferries — are essential to the health of the state economy and to everyone’s personal prosperity.
Ferries provide an essential transportation element. Down-Sound ferry routes from the Coleman and Fauntleroy docks mainly serve people commuting to work in Seattle; the mid-Sound routes serve residents and the naval stations; and, the San Juan route is critical to state tourism.
During the summer of 2014, when a career mariner was in charge of operations, the ferry Evergreen State, constructed in 1954, was officially retired, on June 29. One month later, however, after numerous boats went out of service due to mechanical problems, the director reactivated the Evergreen State and maintained most ferry service.
Fast forward to summer 2017, when ferries again repeatedly broke down throughout the system. The 59-year old ferry Klahowya was tied up at WSF’s facility in Eagle Harbor, where it was to be decommissioned to save money. WSF management did not reactivate the Klahowya, claiming legislative mandate. Numerous service disruptions occurred on the Port Townsend/Coupeville, the San Juans and Clinton/Mukilteo runs, and slowdowns occurred at Seattle-area terminals causing massive inconvenience to ferry customers.
Then WSF temporarily reduced operation of its reservations call center to five days a week from seven days a week from spring through July 1, at which time the center returned to a seven-day-a-week operation. The temporary service reduction made it harder for some customers who don’t use a computer or smartphone — mostly elderly or economically disadvantaged passengers. Again, WSF claims this was due to budget issues. But the budget allocates $1.551 million for WSF to improve the reservation system, not to curtail service hours.
Because ferry service is so critical to the communities it serves, the Legislature passed a law requiring WSF to consult local ferry-advisory committees to develop schedules that work, to resolve customer problems and to understand regional issues.
Effective consultations have stopped. My experience is that WSF management imposes policies that adversely affect customers and then doesn’t respond to questions or complaints from its advisory committees. I doubt that any of us who have invested hundreds of ferry-advisory-committee volunteer hours working on behalf of ferry customers think that WSF has done its job.
As the chairman of the San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee recently wrote: “My goal … is to get WSF to stop making silly policy without checking with anyone. … When ferry management actually knew something about managing ferries, this would not be an issue. But that was then.”
WSF’s mismanagement of the fleet and its aggressive disregard for its customers needs to change now, before we have to suffer through yet another summer of trouble.
Information in this article, first published online on Jan. 1, 2017, was corrected Jan. 5, 2017. A previous version incorrectly stated that WSF had shut down its reservations call center. Operation of the call center was reduced to five days a week from seven days a week between spring 2017 and July 1, when the center then returned to a seven-day-a-week operation.