The scoop on broken Washington State Ferries

Editor’s note: This editorial was written prior to the Elwha going out of service on Aug. 16.

Instead of a rarity, ferry breakdowns are becoming the norm — at least this summer.

In mid-July, two broken ferries prompted an alternate schedule for 13 days. Last week, the San Juans’ newest boat, the Samish, had mechanical issues, plunging the routes right back to limited sailings for three days.

“This was the perfect storm; everyone learned from this,” said Lopez Ferry Terminal Agent Shelley Clark at a Ferry Advisory Committee meeting on Orcas on Aug. 9. “But I don’t know how you figure this out until you’ve had it happen a couple times.”

The Yakima went out of service on Sunday, July 16. The Kitsap, the only backup vessel for Washington State Ferries’ 22 boats, was also out. As a result, the Anacortes/San Juans route operated on a four-boat “emergency” schedule that lasted until July 29, when the Chelan was brought in from the Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth route.

On Aug. 6, the Samish, which was built in 2015, had a propeller shaft coupling failure, returning the route to just four vessels. On Aug. 9, a repaired Yakima returned and regular sailings resumed. The Kitsap is back up and now servicing the Vashon route.

The Samish is estimated to be back in six to eight weeks, which means that there will be no relief vessel for any of the routes until then.

“This is something that should never happen; it’s completely out of the blue,” said Washington State Ferries Director Of Government Relations John Vezina at the FAC meeting. “They don’t think it’s wise to put it (the Samish) back into service if we don’t know what caused it.”

Repercussions of limited sailings

With decreased capacity and an alternate schedule, travelers experienced all-day wait times, voided reservations and canceled plans.

When the Samish was pulled, the sheriff’s office and Orcas Island Fire and Rescue helped with crowd control and congestion at the Orcas terminal. According to OIFR, the hundreds of cars waiting all day created a “road and pedestrian” hazard. On Lopez, the ferry line was backed up several miles and travelers were delayed more than 10 hours without easily accessible bathrooms or food service. Ferry employees drove along the line to transport people to restrooms.

When ferries lag, businesses on the islands do too. Delivery of goods is delayed, commuters are forced into 12-hour days, visitors cut their time short, and tourists, who had a negative experience, potentially affect future travel plans.

“We understand the frustration that you all feel and the impact it has on your businesses,” said Vezina. “I know there’s real frustration in the San Juan Islands about how your economy is impacted when there is a downsizing in June, July and August … We have a plan for how we do it and this has caused us to update it.”

The economic ramifications of the two weeks of service interruption in July will be outlined in a letter to state legislators, according to Victoria Compton, executive director of the San Juan Economic Development Council.

Compton and members of the islands’ chambers of commerce, the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau, the Town of Friday Harbor and the San Juan County Council are drafting the letter to illustrate the islands’ dependence on ferries. The letter will be sent in September, once lost sales tax can be determined. Based on the collection of testimonials from business owners, Compton expects to see a decline.

“The bigger concern is that some visitors may choose not to return in the future because of an assumption that ferry travel is difficult and lengthy, and some businesses may choose to move to a place where logistics are easier,” said Compton. “The ferry outages have been particularly difficult for contractors trying to move materials and workers from island to island, and from the mainland.”

Condition of the boats; new construction

Ian Sterling of WSF told the Journal in early August that the 50-year-old Yakima needed “major repair,” including a new generator and other maintenance. The Kitsap has been fixed and is now serving the Vashon route, which is where the Chelan was pulled from to help the San Juans.

The Klahowya was retired this year, but cannot be brought back as a service relief vessel because WSF is not funded to operate it. The boat would need to be dry docked, inspected, then staffed, which requires a 21-day bidding process.

Two other ferries are currently out of commission for routine maintenance, the Kittitas and the Spokane. Sterling said the Spokane is getting a “much needed” paint job, while the Kittitats is receiving fire sprinkler maintenance and Coast Guard recertification.

“We’re doing what we can with what we’ve got,” said Vezina.

Other boats on the Anacortes/San Juan run are the Hyak (built in 1967), Samish (2015), Elwha (1967) and Tillikum (1959). Of all the runs in the entire state – from Port Townsend to Edmonds to Bainbridge – the San Juans have the oldest vessels.

The 144-car Suquamish, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018, will run on the Mukilteo/Clinton route from mid-May until mid-October, when ferry travel is at its peak. The rest of the year, it will serve as a maintenance relief boat for both the Superclass and other Olympic class ferries.

“We based the decision to place the Suquamish on the Mukilteo/Clinton run on a variety of factors, including capacity, maintenance, operating costs and ridership numbers. We think the best use of our newest ferry is serving a busy route during peak seasons and providing relief for other vessels during the slower winter months,” said Lynne Griffith, former WSDOT assistant secretary, ferries division, in a December 2016 press release.

The Mukilteo/Clinton route carries the most vehicles of any of the others in the system, with more than 2.2 million cars transported in 2015. The Suquamish will bring “much-needed” relief to the busy route’s summer burden.

Once the Suquamish is on the water, the San Juans will lose the Hyak because WSF is only funded to operate a certain number of boats. It’s not known which vessel will replace the Hyak, but it the Sealth will replace the Tillikum, which would then be a backup boat.

According to Vezina, state legislature does not want another ferry to be built until there is a long-range plan. The plan is due in January 2019. The design and construction of a new vessel can only begin once the plan is approved. That means, it’s likely a new ferry will not be completed until the mid-2020s.

“You can either fund ferries for the service you demand or you get the service you fund,” said Vezina, paraphrasing Washington State Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar.

State law requires all WSF vessel to be built in Washington. According to the Washington Policy Center — an independent non-profit that promotes “sound” public policy based on free-market solutions — by requiring all ferries to be manufactured in Washington, the state government is spending an average of $52 million more per ferry than its Canadian counterpart. The website said that in 2007, WSF contracted to build three 144-car ferries for $393.5 million, an average of $131 million per ferry (Samish, Chimacum and Suquamish). In 2015, British Columbia Ferries bought three 145-car ferries built in Poland, averaging $79 million per ferry, including import fees and taxes.

Vigor is the only boat manufacturer in Washington that is qualified to build the ferries.

“There is no competition on the bids,” said Hughes. “I don’t support the vessels being made only in Washington state although I do think there should be priorities given to Washington companies. We lose federal granting options because we don’t open it up the entire country. The boats shouldn’t cost us this much.”

Hughes said it is up the state legislators to repeal the RCW, which went into effect 20 years ago.

Fare increases

On July 26, the Washington State Transportation Commission announced ferry fare increases that will be implemented over the next two years. The commission must ensure ferry fares generate $381 million in operating revenue between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2019, as required in the recently passed two-year state transportation budget for Washington State Ferry operations. The final ferry fare adjustments adopted by the commission will take effect as follows:

Oct. 1, 2017

  • 2.9 percent fare increase for small and standard sized vehicles
  • 0.8 percent to 1.8 percent fare increase for oversized vehicles (22 feet and longer), depending on vehicle size
  • 2.1 percent fare increase for passengers
  • Passengers who bring bicycles towing kayaks or canoes will pay the motorcycle/ stowage fare. All other bicyclists towing items other than a kayak or canoe would continue to pay the same fare as today (bicycle surcharge plus the passenger fare).

Oct. 1, 2018

  • 2.5 percent fare increase for small and standard sized vehicles
  • No fare increase for oversized vehicles (22 feet and longer)
  • 2.1 percent fare increase for passengers
  • School group passengers fare will increase from $1 per group for a one-way trip to $5 per group for a one-way trip

For more information, visit

Local government action

On Aug. 8, County Council Chairman Rick Hughes sent a letter to Governor Jay Inslee and Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar requesting a meeting to discuss WSF service outages in San Juan County. Inslee has yet to respond to Hughes.

Hughes wrote, “These recent outages should be foreshadowing for what will happen if WSF budgets continue as planned. WSF needs to build new boats every two years for the next 20 years and eliminate the $350,000,000 in deferred maintenance that is currently on the books. WSF needs to continue to invest in capital facilities, boats, maintenance, and operations. Ridership continues to grow as our fleet ages. We should be investing in a transportation system that covers far more of its operational budget than other transit systems.

“For all ferry-served communities, WSF is our road, bridge, tunnel and highway. WSF is our farm to market road, our commute time freeway, our access to hospitals, and all these boat breakdowns are hurting our economies and putting locals and visitors in potentially unsafe situations. WSDOT and WSF may not be in positions to ask or lobby for new money, but San Juan County feels we can’t be silent any longer. At the current pace, recent breakdowns will be the norm instead of isolated situations. More money will be spent fixing issues that could have been prevented. The governor needs to take a leadership position and fully support and fund Washington State Ferries.”

Hughes said at the FAC meeting, “We may have issues with ferries, but this isn’t necessarily the ferries’ fault. It’s not even, really, the legislature’s fault anymore because the governor is not putting forth the budget. So the fault, in my opinion, is Washington State Department of Transportation secretary and the governor.”

Hughes told the Journal that Amy Scarton, new assistant secretary for WSF, has been very communicative since the ferry problems began in July.

“She is trying to be a really good partner with us,” he said.

Hughes said most of the other routes in the state bring in enough money to pay for operating costs while the San Juans typically only cover 55 percent of the cost.

“The state is subsidizing us for ferries,” he said. “But San Juan County is considered a ‘donor county,’ which means what we bring in taxes for the state exceeds what the state gives back in services. It’s because we have such highly assessed property values – even though we have low property taxes. We are the biggest contributors of state revenue per capita.”

Sounder reporter Mandi Johnson contributed to this story.