On the afternoon of the day before Thanksgiving, the state suddenly pulled its so-called steel-electric ferries out of service. In addition to disrupting...
On the afternoon of the day before Thanksgiving, the state suddenly pulled its so-called steel-electric ferries out of service. In addition to disrupting service on one of the busiest ferry-traffic weekends of the fall, it brought an immediate halt to ferry service between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend.
On its face, the decision should have raised questions. Hadn’t these boats already been inspected by an international hull-inspection team, which found them acceptable? Hadn’t the Coast Guard, which has the most fundamental responsibility for vessel safety, recertified them as safe, once some repairs were made? Weren’t their skippers and engineers, who have the most personal responsibility for the safety of their passengers and boats, convinced of the boats’ safety?
Ignoring all those facts, the state seized on some newly-found “pitting” on part of one of the boat’s hulls. Without seeing if the same pitting was present in the other three boats or determining whether this level of pitting on the boats might actually present an imminent safety risk, the state decided to pull the boats out of service.
Dramatic. Decisive. Dumb.
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A little more than a week later, the state announced it would tie up the four steel-electrics permanently and spend $100 million from other ferry accounts — most from money earmarked for four other larger and much-more-needed replacement ferries — to replace them.
All this for a ferry route between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend that carries just 3 percent of Washington State Ferries’ ridership.
The creation of this “crisis” and its quick “solution” have all the earmarks of a political charade, with the usual spoils. As Bob Distler, the state Transportation Commission’s point person on ferry issues told his local newspaper: “It takes an emergency like this to get the Legislature moving … “
A few days after the “solution” was announced, Paula Hammond, head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, sent a memo to all WSF employees, which concluded with this:
“My greatest interest is that the Washington State Ferries management and staff will be recognized as the can-do organization that I know you are. … I believe that by our actions in this and the next several months, we will prove to policymakers and our citizens that WSDOT/WSF has their best interest at heart and we can deliver.”
Hammond didn’t mention passenger safety anywhere in her memo. Nor did she offer any “solution” other than “hope” that other money would be found to address WSF’s more critical problem: the long-delayed construction of four 144-car ferries WSF desperately needs to replace aging ferries on its much-more-heavily traveled routes. WSF management has fumbled this project for more than four years and still isn’t to the bid stage. No one believes the $345 million once budgeted for those four boats is enough to build even three boats, and now the governor proposes moving $64 million from that account to take care of the Whidbey-to-Port Townsend run.
Then there’s the coincidence that the powerful chairwoman of the state Senate’s Transportation Committee represents the people at one end of this ferry run, and that the financially teetering shipyard likely to benefit from this emergency construction plan is in her district as well.
The sad and frustrating thing is that WSF actually is in a crisis. The Legislature has failed for seven years to provide it with a reliable, sustainable source of funding after taking away the motor-vehicle-excise tax. Most recently, it has proposed legislation intended to depress vehicle demand for ferries, thereby reducing future funding needs. Meanwhile, fares have increased an average of 60 percent (doubling in the San Juans) and WSF’s operating budget is awash in red ink. For its part, WSF’s inept management has left it with little credibility in Olympia or in ferry-dependent communities, greatly complicating defining the problem or finding good solutions.
This is the real crisis. It’s way past time for the Legislature, the governor and WSF to address it. It’s not as good as political theater, but it’s much better government than what we’re seeing now.
Alex MacLeod is chairman of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee. He lives on Shaw Island.