An impending increase in ferry fares, the dependability of the islands’ vessels and a “dream schedule” for next summer were the topics of discussion at the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee meeting on June 12. In a small room at the Shaw ferry landing, members of the committee, as well as a couple of regular attendees, met for the committee’s monthly meeting.
The committee reviewed the meeting that Washington State Ferries tariff (fare) meeting in May, wherein it was presented that WSF will be suggesting a 2.5% increase both this October and next. The Washington State Transportation Commission sets the fare increases based on the needs of WSF and legislation requirements.
“The next step is for Ferries to finish a proposal based on all the information they’ve gotten,” FAC Chairman Jim Corenman said.
The final hearing, before the fare increase is adopted, is in Seattle on Aug. 6, according to Debbie Young, who serves on the commission.
There are three parts to the proposal, Corenman explained, the first being a requirement from Legislature to raise the fare by 2.5% as a revenue target based on data that has shown ridership to be steadily increasing.
The second, Corenman continued, is the vessel capital surcharge. It was another legislation requirement to build the first of five next-generation Olympic-class vessels that were approved by Legislature but only budgeted for one. The FAC recommended to WSF that the surcharge goes to each of the various transportation sizes evenly.
“Don’t try to mess around with cars versus walk-ons or discount tickets versus full price,” Corenman said.
The third piece is the timing of the increase. To avoid a strain on low-income riders, the FAC recommended that the fare increases come in October of this year and October of next as opposed to October of this year and May of next.
“Which is pretty hard, I think, on our folks because summer surcharge here is 35% additional,” Corenman said. “I think Ferries prefers October-May because they can raise more money.”
A proposed increase in no-show fees from $10 to half the price of a round trip was also discussed. Though the FAC agreed that increasing the fee would help to lessen the instances of no-shows, the rules should change for when a reservation can be canceled.
“Right now the cut off for cancelation is 5 p.m. the night before, and there is no motivation to cancel after 5 p.m.,” Corenman said. “If folks did cancel the reservations they weren’t going to use, then you could offer reservation space right up to the point of sailing.”
“It’s no surprise to anybody that the boats are running late,” Corenman began. “This year, it seems to have fallen apart completely.”
A new policy adopted by the Legislature this year includes reducing speeds to mitigate underwater sounds to both help the Southern resident orcas and reduce fuel use. Because of how little padding there is in the schedule, however, there is no time for a vessel to make up ground for delayed arrival, and it causes a ripple effect, the group noticed.
A recent error by WSF, Corenman explained, was when cars on standby in Anacortes were loaded onto the ferry before reservation holders were. He noted the terminal workers were getting creative with the lanes because the ferry schedule was so far off; people were arriving for the second ferry when the first hadn’t even arrived yet. Everyone got on the boat, however, so it ended well, explained Anacortes resident and frequent FAC meeting attendee Bill Pike.
“That’s a huge issue in Anacortes when they go off schedule,” Pike said. “That’s where mistakes get made. … You could just see it coming apart at the seams.”
The committee agreed that they don’t believe that WSF is being fully transparent with the group or the public.
“Last spring and last summer, when Elwha was running around here … slowly, ferry service was infinitely more transparent about that situation. They came out and they said, ‘This is what’s going to happen, the boat’s going to be late every day from now until the end of July and get used to it because the alternative is no boat at all,’” Pike said. “The point is, at least they came out and said, ‘OK, we have an ongoing problem and it’s not going to get fixed any time between now and the end of July’ and everybody knew it, nobody was happy about it but at least I think they were being pretty straightforward about it.”
Pike has a plan for what he calls his “dream schedule.” He reiterated that this is not the official schedule and should not be taken as such, but he said he believes that his plan would fix the punctuality problems that plague the San Juans because of a schedule that has remained relatively the same for more than five years.
“It was [WSF’s] suggestion at the February meeting that we come up with a dream schedule that would at least address the issues that we want to try to get fixed,” Pike said.
Pike’s plan contains objectives like making the early morning Orcas to Anacortes trip earlier and adding crew time to be able to start the vessels going earlier in the morning and run later into the night.
“There are some hideous inefficiencies on the entire afternoon schedule,” Pike said.
Pike’s schedule was passed out to the FAC so that they could approve of it before releasing it to the public.
“It is a work in process,” Corenman said.
Elwha needs more work
Though Elwha had $25 million worth of steel replaced in it in summer 2018, it still needs work done and will be pulled sometime this year for that maintenance. It is likely, the FAC acknowledged, that the San Juan route may be short a vessel once again in the summer.
Additionally, the Tillikum has to be pulled in July for its annual inspection, Corenman added.
“We’re a crab pot or two away from a disaster,” County Councilmember Rick Hughes, who phoned into the meeting from Friday Harbor, said. “It’s getting tougher and tougher to answer the community. … I want to be positive and show them where problems are and how to fix them. That’s what we’re here to do, show them things they do not see.”
The FAC’s next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, July 10 in Friday Harbor.