Submitted by the 40th District Delegation.
Washington State Ferries, being our state’s marine highway system, and only transportation option available for most San Juan County residents, is in dire straits. The unprecedented frequency of service disruptions passengers have endured, either through severely delayed sailings or cancellations, has been, and continues to be unacceptable. While these problems have been particularly bad this summer, Island residents know all too well that these issues have existed way before the pandemic. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problems of an already stressed system.
As your representatives, we have been sounding the alarm bells with our legislative colleagues, many of whom do not represent ferry-served districts. Our message to them has been simple and direct: This is not a matter of inconvenience — this is a matter of livelihoods and whether or not people can get to doctor’s appointments, commute to work, get food for their families, and access other essential travel.
The passage of I-695 in 1999 resulted in a WSF loss of approximately 25% of its dedicated operating budget and 75% of its dedicated capital. Consequently, no new vessels were built for an entire decade, 2000-2010. This building drought has saddled WSF with an aging fleet. The 2040 Long Range Plan strategy calls for robust vessel replacement over the next 19 years to maintain current service levels. Additionally, WSF has consistently been underfunded for vital vessel maintenance and preservation work. With a fleet including five boats over 40-years old, two over 50, and one vessel 62-years old, the importance of routine and funded preservation work cannot be overstated.
The fleet needs 18 vessels to operate at current service levels (due to the border closure, taking a boat from the San Juan Islands route this summer), but had been reduced to 15. This resulted in downsizings – fewer vessels or smaller vessels on six routes.
First, we thank our frontline and essential WSF workers who have continued to show up every day during this pandemic and work overtime to ensure our ferry system functions to the best of its ability. We recognize workforce shortages have remained a significant challenge for WSF and have strained the entire system and put workers in difficult situations. Due to increased retirements, physical distancing requirements initially limiting WSF’s training capacity of new hires, quarantines due to COVID cases and contacts, meeting U.S. Coast Guard-mandated crewing levels has been an additional challenge.
Due to the nature of this specialized work, WSF must tap into a more limited applicant pool compared to most other state agencies, as WSF vessel crews are maritime professionals credentialed by the U.S. Coast Guard. And again, because WSF is only funded at the minimum crewing levels, if a single crewmember, for example, was stuck in traffic on their way to work, was ill, or delayed for any other reason, the vessel would not be able to sail.
Our ferry system would not be able to function without the hard work and dedication of its employees.
Ferries are our top priority in the transportation budget. We established a formal Ferry Caucus within the legislature to better organize and advocate for desperately needed funding to replace our aging fleet, minimize service disruptions, and improve overall service. We will also work toward ending WSF’s seasonal hiring practices of ramping up in the summer just to ramp down a few months later and instead advocate for more sustainable, living wage employment opportunities for our working families. We believe that this will lead to greater retention and savings overall if we keep staffing year-round.
We remain steadfast in our goal of adequately funding hybrid-electric vessel construction. Current transportation funding proposals in the legislature include the construction of an additional four Hybrid-electric Olympic Class vessels over the next 16 years, with a first having already been funded. Although this is a promising start, it is nowhere near the need: WSF’s Long Range Plan calls for 16 vessels to be built within the next 19 years.
Our commitment to this end is unwavering as we look to right the ship and provide the support that our constituents rightfully deserve, and that the ferry system urgently needs.
As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach back out to our offices.