Washington State Ferries announced late Wednesday afternoon it will impose cuts indefinitely to at least five routes, after failing to overcome a chronic lack of crew.
Ferry officials said that by adopting a leaner schedule, to take effect on Saturday, they could better assure travelers that the remaining sailings do occur.
It’s a drastic move that Amy Scarton, deputy state transportation secretary, said last week the agency might need to make. She compared this scenario to “snow routes” when transit or ferry managers carefully trim service but keep a mobility lifeline between communities, in an interview with The Seattle Times.
The system provided nearly full-capacity service on Monday, following about 140 sudden boat cancellations late last week. However, dispatchers and managers aren’t able to sustain the schedule.
Effective Saturday, the Mukilteo-Clinton, Edmonds-Kingston, and Seattle-Bainbridge routes will be reduced from two boats to one. The Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle will shrink from three boats to two. And the Anacortes-San Juan Islands region will have three vessels instead of four.
The Seattle-Bremerton route was already down to one boat, in the wake of a spring engine fire that’s kept the M/V Wenatchee docked in Eagle Harbor, Bainbridge Island. The Tahlequah-Point Defiance route remains with its normal single boat, and the Port Townsend-Coupeville route is also on a single boat schedule. All this assumes no mechanical breakdowns.
“The change will help offer more predictable and reliable service systemwide in the face of a global shortage of mariners that has been worsened by the pandemic,” a Ferries statement said.
The announcement describes these cutbacks as “temporary” with no estimated end date.
If enough crew can be called in, additional vessels may be sent into service on short notice from time to time, said Ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling.
“We want to put out as much capacity as we possibly can.”
The ferry system doesn’t have a short-term plan ready to alleviate crew shortages, but Sterling said one tool may be to invite retired ferry workers to return temporarily.
In addition to the maritime worker shortage, a state ferry can be canceled if even a few shifts go unfilled — for instance, a deckhand can’t replace an engine-room oiler, and an engineer can’t replace a mate who navigates.
The ferry system says it hired more than 150 new operating employees this year, but that training has been hampered by the pandemic. The agency also uses an antiquated system where entry-level workers are on call with unstable schedules. Also, reassignments are done through hundreds of phone calls by dispatchers on deadlines, rather than through an easier software system.
State Ferries is the nation’s largest ferry system, and until recently was rebounding toward its normal clientele of up to 24 million yearly passengers.
Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement last week he’s looking for short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions but none have been announced. Some state lawmakers from the Anacortes-San Juans area have called to make ferry funding the top priority in the 2022 budget, reported Washington State Wire.