New ferry schedule to take current challenges into account

Over 120 citizens tuned in to the Washington State Ferry Service presentations April 23 and April 24 that focused on the process of updating the Anacortes San Juan routes. Even though there are seasonal schedules, the entire schedule is typically only updated every 10-15 years.

“We will be focusing on the challenges and constraints to prepare the public for the draft schedule when it comes out,” Hadley Rodero, WSF’s Deputy Director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations, told the audience April 24, kicking off the presentation. The top priority, she continued, is to create a schedule that will be reliable and consistent.

Washington State Ferries planner Jason Rogers gave a framework on a few of the challenges a schedule presents. Ferry ridership over the last 10-15 years has grown tremendously, Rogers said. COVID, of course, put a temporary dent in that growth but already, according to planning analyst Elise Chessman, ridership is comparable to pre-COVID numbers. Rogers noted that Orcas has become the fastest-growing destination. One hundred employees work on those boats daily. Per U.S. Coast Guard rules, those employees may only work so many hours in a given period. WSF tries to keep deck crew under 10 hours a day, whereas engine room crew work 12-hour shifts, but work one week on and one week off. They cannot work overtime.

Chessman dove deeper into the numbers. First, dwell time is how long a boat is docked at a terminal loading and unloading. This can be affected by how full the vessel is, how it was loaded, and the design of the terminal itself. Crossing time refers to how long it takes a ferry to cross. “The reality is the boats are crossing slower than they used to,” Chessman stated. This is primarily due to their age. Fuel efficiency also impacts the time, and every few minutes longer throws the schedule off. Overall cycle times need to be five minutes longer,” she said.

Cycle time is a combination of crossing and dwell time and, according to Chessman, because crossing time is no longer accurate, she and her coworkers are connecting with those on the fleets to get on-the-ground information. This information led to a question later from a participant who wondered if changing the schedule would make it easier moving forward. Chessman replied yes, that the process resulted in the realization that this kind of overhaul was needed more frequently.

A round of questions and answers followed. Frustration around continued cancelations was expressed,

“Crewing challenges continue … I want to say thank you to the crew who have continued to show up,” Ray Deardorf, Long Range Planner responded. “It is demonstrably better; over the next year it will be even better.”

Struggles with communication when routes were canceled were discussed. “We can’t always control crew shortages and boat breakdowns, but we can control how we get the message out,” Deardorf said, thanking the Ferry Advisory Committee and County Council for their suggestions and feedback.

Some pondered why WSF did not prioritize San Juan County residents. WSF cannot prioritize island residents. WSF falls under the Washington Transportation Department and is considered part of the state’s highway system. As a result, all Washington taxpayers contributed to keeping the ferries afloat, and deserve equal treatment.

Other questions centered around whether WSF could work with the Coast Guard and unions to tweak crewing rules. “That’s a great question,” Rogers responded, saying that they thought about doing just that to mesh working and operational schedules better. “Thinking about these people’s lives, and how it impacts their day, their families, is important,” Rogers said.

Passenger-only ferries were also brought up. Staff indicated that such a system would involve safety and union considerations, there is a study underway that, over the next year, will look into passenger-only service.

A draft should be available during the summer when more community engagement will be planned. A finalization of the schedules is anticipated for the fall. The new winter reservations should be released in November, with the first of the new schedules taking place Dec. 29. The Task Force meetings will be public for those who would like to join in. For a link to upcoming task force meetings or recordings of past meetings, visit