Three weeks of ferry woes bring up bigger questions

Washington State Ferries have been experiencing broken boats, replacement vessels, missed runs and overloads. For ferry riders, especially inter-island commuters, the last three weeks have been a little strange.

For those receiving email bulletins from Washington State Ferries, it was a frenetic series of messages about broken boats, replacement vessels, missed runs and overloads.

For ferry riders, especially inter-island commuters, the last three weeks have been a little strange.

“We are going to see increased impacts on service in the San Juans if we don’t get in front of the capital funding,” said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan.

On Oct. 7, the Yakima, which carries up to 144 cars, went down because of abnormal bearing wear on a propulsion motor shaft. WSF took the 86-car Evergreen State off its normal inter-island route to replace the Yakima. The 34-car Hiyu, which is always on standby for the San Juans, was put back into the mix as the inter-island boat.

The Evergreen is not part of the “super” class, so it goes 12 knots versus the Yakima’s 16 knots. The slower speed and smaller capacity of both the Evergreen and Hiyu resulted in continuous schedule delays and frequent overloads. The Yakima, Evergreen and Hiyu range in age from 44 to 57 years old.

Further complicating the situation, the Hiyu’s fire pump shaft was found broken on Oct. 11, while the boat was between Orcas and Shaw. Cars and passengers were off-loaded onto Orcas and the 144-car Elwha made an unscheduled stop at Orcas. The 64-car Chetzemoka, a brand new boat, just so happened to be available (it was on its way to the Dakota Creek Shipyard), so it began covering inter-island runs.

The Yakima returned to service on Oct. 16.

Four days later, the Hyak, another “super” boat, was needed to replace an out-of-service boat down-sound. The Hiyu was again sent to provide interisland service while the Evergreen State handled mainland runs, resulting in schedule delays and overloads.

On Oct. 24, the Hiyu again had mechanical problems and was pulled from service without a backup vessel.

The next day, the county council sent a letter to Ranker, highlighting the need for a change, saying the service interruptions resulted in “missed appointments, commercial delays, lost business and potential isolation of an entire county.”

“Ferries are like bridges, they don’t last forever,” read the letter. “Without ongoing funding for vessel refurbishment and replacement, situations like this will only become more commonplace… WSF has done an exemplary job providing the best service possible with the available assets, but WSF’s fleet is aging and the only new boats, the three 64s, cannot effectively replace the supers. The planned construction of one new 144-car boat is a big step in the right direction, but it is obvious WSF and the Puget Sound communities need more large boats.”

Ranker said that “for the most part, the council is right on target” and that WSF’s current situation is due to decades of neglect.

The state is currently funding construction of a new 144-car ferry. It will be done within a year, and Ranker hopes it comes to the San Juans.

“I’m fighting for it and I hope we win,” Ranker said.

He says there was a package moving forward in the legislature last year to build another ferry, but it died in the last session.

The senator says the lack of funding for Washington State Ferries is indicative of a bigger problem. Ranker says that government “looks different now” and the funding cuts – in all areas – will take decades to rebuild.

“The question for the voters of Washington is: what kind of state do you want to live in?” he said. “As Washingtonians, our expectations are very high but our revenue is very low. The transportation budget overall is in serious trouble … it’s funded primarily from the gas tax. As gas prices increase, we get the same amount of money … people are driving less and cars are also more fuel efficient. The transportation budget as a whole is going further in the red. We have got to get in front of this and develop a bi-partisan funding package for transportation.”