The problem stems from a dock that’s too small, an old ticketing system and Washington State Ferries’ policy of prioritizing on-time arrivals and departures over filling up the boats, a new study says.

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Ferries regularly leave West Seattle’s Fauntleroy dock nearly half-empty, carrying far fewer cars than they could fit, even as the line of cars waiting to board a ferry can stretch more than a mile up the street.

The problems, which are greatest during the busy summer season, stem from a dock that’s too small, a ticketing system that’s out of date and Washington State Ferries’ policy of prioritizing on-time arrivals and departures over filling up the boats, according to a new study from a University of Washington economist.

“There are ferries that are leaving half-empty,” said UW economist Theo Eicher, who co-wrote the study with Jeremy Cooper, an economic analyst. “At times they have to make a decision to either fully load the boat or leave with empty spaces, despite the fact that there is a long line of cars waiting.”

Facebook is peppered with similar complaints:

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“1:25 boat left at 1:27, less than half-full with a line back to the middle lot of Lincoln Park,” one woman wrote on Thursday. “Good times.”

No one disputes that the dock, which has only one ferry slip and can hold about 80 cars, is too small.

Each ferry — the route has one ferry that holds 90 cars and two that hold 124 cars — can hold more cars than can queue up on the dock. As additional cars arrive, they line up on Fauntleroy Way Southwest, unable to fit on the dock. Once a ferry arrives, cars begin to board and room on the dock slowly opens up. But the cars waiting along the street still need to get through the tollbooths at the entry to the dock.

This leaves ferries with a conundrum: Leave on time with the cars that were waiting on the dock, or wait for additional cars to filter one by one through the tollbooths until the ferry fills up?

They mostly choose to leave on time.

Washington State Ferries is mandated by the Legislature to evaluate itself on how often its boats are on time; it is not similarly mandated to evaluate how often its boats are full.

Because there’s only one slip at the Fauntleroy dock, and because ferries arrive every 20 to 30 minutes during rush hour, the agency says that holding ferries until they’re full would force the following boats to idle and cause a cascade of delays.

“At the end of the day you’re really talking about a dock that was built in the 1950s,” said Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling. “If there was a simple fix, it would have been fixed.”

The problem can be compounded because some Fauntleroy ferries go only to Vashon Island, some go only to Southworth and some go to both destinations. So, it’s a balancing act for dock crews to organize car traffic so as to prevent vehicles for one destination blocking vehicles headed to the other.

The UW’s Eicher, who lives on Vashon Island, and Cooper analyzed data from the ferries’ ticket scanners to estimate how many cars each ferry is carrying and, thus, how often ferries aren’t carrying a full load.

Their data, looking at prime-hour trips in August 2011 and August 2017, show that ferries, while carrying a similar number of vehicles, are leaving with more open spaces more often than they used to.

There’s a simple reason: The Fauntleroy routes now use bigger ferries than they did before. The route currently has two 124-car ferries and one 90-car ferry; it used to have two 90-car ferries and one 80-car ferry.

While the ferries have a larger capacity, they still have the same, too-small dock, which limits the agency’s ability to capitalize on the bigger boats.

“You end up filling the boats as much as you can,” Sterling said. “Putting bigger vessels on the routes exacerbates the problem as to optically what it looks like, even though we move more cars than we used to.”

Eicher’s two most notable suggestions to fix the problem are to change how tickets are sold and change the ferry schedule. Both would help the ferries load more quickly and depart closer to full, but also would create other issues.

He suggests using a Good to Go!-type tolling system, which has been under consideration since 2012 and would let cars bypass the tollbooth for faster boarding. But ferries currently charge for each car and each passenger, and Good to Go! cannot count passengers. So the agency would have to either forgo some passenger revenue — estimated at more than $2 million a year — or revamp its fare structure, charging significantly more per car.

Eicher also proposes a new schedule that he says would give each ferry a little more time at the dock, allowing them to take on fuller loads. With his schedule every boat would go to both Vashon and Southworth, which would simplify loading but cut several daily direct trips to Southworth.

Some changes are coming, eventually. There is funding to rebuild the Fauntleroy Terminal, but construction won’t start until 2025, and it’s still unclear how much larger the dock — which is constrained by neighboring houses — might get. The sailing schedule is also due to change next year, when another larger ferry will start serving the route.

“No one is asking for more boats, more runs, more funds,” Eicher said. “The commuters are only asking for boats to be loaded more efficiently.”