Ferries advisory chairman explains why you should care about WSF long-range plan | Guest Column

By Jim Corenman

Chairman, San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee

Washington State Ferries staff recently released the draft for their long-range plan looking out the next two decades to 2040. This has been a long time in the making, including meetings over the last year and public outreach by WSF this spring. The draft plan is now open for comment, and the final draft will be complete and presented to the state Legislature in January.

It will surprise no one that the top priority from all the comments has been reliability, and this is the key focus for the draft plan: Expand the fleet and focus on maintenance. The current situation, as laid out by the previous 2009 LRP, seems almost doomed to fail in retrospect: A total of 22 vessels with 19 in active service during the summer months, two in rotation for scheduled maintenance, and only one spare available for service in the event of mishaps.

We’ve had our share of ferry mishaps: Elwha out of service since early spring with serious corrosion issues (and not due back until December); Yakima crippled for months with bent props (now fixed); Hyak still sidelined with drive-motor problems; Issaquah out with gearbox problems; the list goes on and on. The equation simply doesn’t work: aging ferries need serious maintenance. Maintenance budgets have been cut but WSF even can’t spend what they have because there are no spare vessels to allow for preventative maintenance. This is a circle that ends with broken boats and service disruptions right in the middle of our busiest season.

So the plan focuses on new vessels, some as replacements for aging vessels and some as additional maintenance and standby relief vessels. Other priorities include seismic terminal refits, reduction of carbon emissions, expansion of the Lopez terminal and replacement of the Anacortes terminal building.

What the plan does not provide for is significant growth. The traffic projections are for vehicle and walk-on/passenger growth of 36-38 percent by 2040, or only a 1.5 percent annual growth over 22 years — less than our annual growth over the last decade or so. Some increase in service hours is planned, and reservations may be expanded to other routes. But vessels are expensive, and simply increasing the fleet to meet maintenance needs — including other improvements — will cost 6.7 billion above current funding over 20 years.

The next critical step is funding. To quote the plan (p.10): “The consequences of not investing in the system are dire, with vessels and other infrastructure continuing to deteriorate without replacement, cuts to service and a gradual shrinkage of the ferry system. WSF’s customers and ferry-served communities would suffer as a result.”

What can you do to help? First, read the plan at wsflongrangeplan.com and decide if it makes sense and if you agree with the proposals. Attend the local open house from 4-6 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 26 at Brickworks in Friday Harbor. Most importantly, give comments online. If you agree, let them know; if you don’t, let them know what you propose as an alternative.

The next step is supporting legislation which will make this proposal into reality. It is not too early to reach out to state legislators or candidates for Kristine Lytton’s seat, Debra Lekanoff and Michael Petrish.