Letters to the Editor

Former Ferry Advisory Committee member: 'Issues we face today are far more complex and disquieting'

An open letter to the San Juan County Council:

After serving for seven years, I resigned with regret from the San Juan Islands Ferry Advisory Committee. Let me offer some reflections on our ferry service which is the cornerstone of our community.

The problems and issues we face today are far more complex and disquieting than when I first joined the FAC. It was over 10 years ago when Gov. Gary Locke signed the provisions of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 495 into law, eviscerating the funding for the state’s ferry system. With the passage of time, optimism has faded about finding a funding source to replace the loss of the motor vehicle excise tax.

Rising diesel fuel costs have only highlighted the urgent need to address the problem. Yet I have heard embarrassingly little honest discussion about ferry funding from Olympia. In fact, in May 2007, as oil prices climbed to historic levels, our political representatives granted us – the ferry riders - a 29-month holiday on fare increases. Like so much debate in the public square today, we want our government services but prefer that someone else pays for them.

Our fleet is aging, visibly rustier and operationally stressed. When I joined the FAC, WSF was planning to add another 144-class ferry to serve the San Juans. Now, not only are there no new ferries planned to expand service here through 2030, but also no new ferries are budgeted to replace our aging 144-class “supers.”

With ridership continuing to grow, albeit slowly, reservations have become in effect a default necessity to ration spaces in lieu of expanding capacity. The Coast Guard has banned touring watches, a mandate that had no real bite Down Sound but has dramatically impacted scheduling here. WSF seemingly and quietly loses every arbitration battle with its unions, subtly but measurably increasing its deficits.

The layering of these complex issues has several consequences. One is that drafting a ferry schedule to meet the needs of our islands has become much more difficult. Ferry schedules are constrained by an increasing number of factors: the size of ferries available, the number of crew man-hours budgeted, the different relief schedules for the union deck crews and the union engine-room crews, the restrictions in the union contracts on the length of crew watches, the legislatively-mandated service to Sidney for 42 weeks a year, and the recent elimination of “touring” watches imposed by the Coast Guard. These requirements all have the effect of trumping our needs – WSF customers’ needs. Our needs come last.

Another less tangible consequence is that our ferries are operating on a very thin and an increasingly frayed string. The “supers” serving the island routes to and from Anacortes were built 43 years ago. One – the Elwha – experienced a failure of its electric motor and was out of service for 18 months. The forced retirement of the Steel Electric class boats has left WSF with an increased operating tempo of its remaining fleet and little reserve capacity. The heightened operating tempo has made it more difficult to schedule routine shipyard overhaul of WSF’s aging ferries. Riders see this as rusting ferries.

Flexibility to replace a boat temporarily out of service is thin at best. Sometimes there is no reserve boat within the WSF system. If a “super” were to experience a major mechanical breakdown, ferry service here could be dramatically curtailed. It is an accident waiting to happen.

The system for financing and planning the construction of new ferry boats is broken to the point of despair. Funding for capital projects has been emasculated by the elimination of the motor vehicle excise tax. Consultants dominate the decision-making process. They – not the professionals at WSF — seem to have the ear of the decision-makers in Olympia.

The consultants are enamored with efficiency of small ferries. Three small ferries – the Island Home class – are under construction and a fourth may be built. They carry 64 cars, 11 cars fewer than the steel electrics and 25 percent fewer than our interisland ferry, the Evergreen State. Except as an interisland boat, they meet no conceivable need here.

Consultants also are enamored with the efficiency – at least on paper - of WSF’s razor-thin reserve capacity. When ferries are built, the state’s statutes require that they be built in Washington state. Competitive tenders are issued to shipyards in the state, but in fact only one bid is received. As a result, the construction of ferries in our state cost – in the opinion of one member of the state’s Transportation Commission from Eastern Washington – 50 percent more than if bid competitively within the United States.

If the system for construction funding is broken, there are also no easy answers to funding the daily operating costs of the San Juan Islands’ ferries. Since 2003, we – the users – have been paying a declining share of the cost of operating our ferries. Our ticket purchases pay roughly 45 percent of the operating cost of our ferries. In contrast, WSF recovers 100 percent of its operating costs on its three most heavily travelled routes Down Sound.

Our low “fare box recovery rate” is a conundrum. While our fare box recovery rate could be higher, we cannot match the Down Sound fare box recovery rate. If WSF sought to increase fares to cover 100 percent - or even 80 percent, which is often cited as a target - of the cost of operating the San Juan Islands’ ferries, ridership would decline precipitously and offset much of the revenue from increased fares.

Finally, let me respond to those who have groused to me over the years that the ferry schedules discriminate against San Juan Island. After seven years, I have come to the conclusion that there is substance in your argument.

These are the facts: When a 144-class “super” ferry has to be taken out of service for emergency repairs or for scheduled maintenance, the super is replaced by the Sealth (100 cars) or the interisland boat (85 cars). The smaller replacement ferry is always assigned to Friday Harbor’s routes. Thus the reduced capacity is almost entirely borne by Friday Harbor. With a smaller replacement ferry here, overloads are common on our two heavily-traveled mid-morning sailings and on the early/mid-afternoon sailing from Anacortes. This is not a trivial issue, since the Sealth is often here for at least 50 percent of any seasonal schedule.

San Juan Island also has for most of the year the longest gap in service – a four-to-five-hour gap in westbound service from Anacortes from mid-morning to early/mid-afternoon. As a result, the afternoon ferry is often overloaded and significantly overloaded when the Sealth is that boat. In addition, oversize vehicles (so-called “talls”) traveling to Friday Harbor constitute a disproportionate share of all “talls” – our share of oversize vehicles is roughly 46 percent while our share of all vehicles is 41.5 percent. Yet Friday Harbor’s space allocations for “talls” have never reflected this fact, and Friday Harbor “tall” overloads are a fact of life.

The result is that overloads to and from Friday Harbor constitute a disproportionate share of total overloads to and from all islands. There is no consolidated overload data for eastbound traffic. For westbound traffic, based on Anacortes statistics I have studied, Friday Harbor’s share of all overloads is roughly 60 percent and our share of “tall” overloads is roughly 75 percent. In contrast, our share of total traffic is about 41.5 percent.

The facts are clear. The whys are less so. I can offer only unsatisfactory explanations.

I could cite the fact that Friday Harbor is the most distant terminal in the system and thus the most difficult to serve with frequency. I could also note that Orcas has held the chair of the FAC for most of the last decade and the chair has disproportionate influence with WSF staff. Yet only once – with the 2010 Spring Schedule — did I see that influence abused.

I could also point to the scheduling staff at WSF. They have had to rewrite our ferry schedules following the termination of touring watches. Each schedule initially submitted by the staff of WSF to the FAC was satisfactory to Orcas and Lopez, but flatly unacceptable to Friday Harbor. This was true of the initial drafts for the 2009 fall and 2010 spring schedules. It is also true of the initial draft for the forthcoming 2010 Summer Schedule.

In the draft Summer Schedule, allocations of spaces are dramatically out of line with historical ridership data. It assigns to Lopez Island almost exactly the same number of spaces in the afternoon as Friday Harbor, though Friday Harbor has roughly twice the traffic. Why WSF’s staff put forward these drafts that then become difficult to change – because of bureaucratic inertia, time deadlines and human selfishness - is a question for which I have no answer.

In closing, I would like to express my appreciation to the County Council for giving me the opportunity to serve for seven years.


Robert T. deGavre
San Juan Island

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