Washington State Ferries’ problem found, but not funding

At the Washington State Transportation Commission meeting on Sept. 19, most speakers agreed the ferry system isn’t working, including the Washington State Ferries representative herself.

“Either we all work together to fund the service that our customers expect, or we need to work together to change the expectations so our customers understand there is a certain level of service our funding can provide,” said WSF Assistant Secretary Amy Scarton.

The commission met in Friday Harbor to discuss the islands’ unique transportation needs, as well as the recently disrupted summer sailings.

According to Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, the islands experienced 22 days of disrupted ferry service this summer. This included days when replacement vessels, with reduced car capacities, were used.

Since funding was slashed by the passing of a voter-led initiative in 2000, said Scarton, WSF has less money to fund boat repairs and vessels are older and fewer.

According to WSF Senior Planning Manager Ray Deardorf, Initiative 695 eliminated a tax on renewing vehicle tabs which funded 15-20 percent of WSF operations and maintenance and 75 percent of capital projects. Capital projects include new vessels and terminals.

Ferry rates have increased roughly 100 percent since then to make up for the operating loss, he added. Another presentation by WSF staff showed that ferry fares in 2015-17 covered only 75 percent of operating costs.

A WSF public relations representative said part of the state’s $.494 gas tax accounts for the rest. According to taxfoundation.org, Washington has the second highest gas tax in the country.

Deardorf also explained that the average lifespan of a Washington State Ferry is 60 years old; the San Juans’ Tillikum, is approaching this limit, and 10 WSF boats, including the San Juans’ Elwha and Hyak, are within a decade away.

Yet, these older boats aren’t being maintained, explained Ranker. According to WSF data, he said, staff needs $99.1 million to repair ferries on the San Juan Island routes, but they only asked state legislators to fund $9.7 million.

The WSF budget is set by the state’s transportation budget, which is passed by state lawmakers and signed into effect by the governor.

According to the WSF presentation, the transportation budget accounted for 9 percent of the previous state biennium budget.

Roger Millar, the Secretary of Transportation for the Washington State Department of Transportation, explained that there would never be enough funds in the state budget to cover any department’s entire maintenance backlog.

“We need to put money in what we own,” said Millar, as maintenance spending, over time, would be cheaper than purchasing new vessels.

Deardorf noted that like most transportation departments at the time, WSF’s long-range plan for 1999 to 2015 focused on expanding the system for a growing population by investing in capital projects. However, after I-695 passed, the following plan for 2009-30, focused on maximizing existing resources, instead. Strategizing for the 2029-40 plan is underway and should be complete by January 2019. It requires WSTC and WSF staff to provide recommendations for state lawmakers. Ranker also requested the commission provide additional oversight to WSF to prevent service disruptions.

Scarton explained that when a ferry has a problem, staff spends the first day diagnosing it. If it’s not fixed, the WSF relief vessel is put into service the next day, after backup staff has been notified to work 24-hours in advance.

If there is no relief vessel, like this summer when it was out for two months, boats are moved to different routes based on factors like ridership. It costs roughly $14,000 to move a boat, said Scarton, and sometimes multiple boats must be rearranged. She estimated that WSF is short half a million dollars this summer, compared to the previous one.

“The most important part of this conversation is what are the opportunities to identify the reasons behind the tough summer we had and how can we move forward together,” she said.

Opportunities, said Scarton, include reviewing WSF’s summer service contingency plan, which she said she shared with the public for the first time at this meeting to receive feedback. Review the plan at www.sanjuanjournal.com.

Ranker also noted that San Juan County regularly generates more in state tax revenue than the county receives in state funds, yet, WSDOT seems to concentrate more on roads than water transportation.

“We don’t have a road to drive around when the ferries go down,” he said. “We have a state highway that is our ferries and it needs to be recognized.”

Ferry Fiasco

The summer’s broken ferries and altered sailing had the following effects on the San Juans routes compared to the previous summer.

July: 5.3 percent decline in vehicles / 3.8 percent increase in walk-on passengers

Aug.: 4.3 percent decline in vehicles / 2.3 percent decline in walk-on passengers

Summer sailing disruptions

These vessels were out of service this summer on the San Juans five-boat route, according to Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas:

July 16-29: Yakima; four-boat schedule used.

Aug. 6-9: Samish; four-boat schedule used.

Aug. 16: Elwha, for part of the day.

Aug. 30: Hyak

Sept. 2-3: Elwha; four-boat schedule used.

Washington State Ferries Summer Service Contingency Plan