Washington State Ferries management in San Juans | Guest Column

By John Brantigan

Shaw Island

In my Jan. 1 editorial in the Seattle Times, I observed that state law requires Washington State Ferries to consult with local ferry-advisory committees to develop schedules that work, to resolve customer problems, and understand regional issues. For at least the past three years, effective consultation has not existed. WSF is violating state law. The Seattle Times editorial was written primarily for a Seattle audience. Local issues in San Juan County also deserve attention.

Last summer ferries repeatedly broke down throughout the system. Twice, breakdowns on the San Juan routes reduced service to four boats from the normal five. One of the breakdowns lasted 10 days, during which tourists and weekenders were stranded or suffered through multi-day waits. The economic damage to San Juan County was enormous, yet WSF refuses to maintain an adequate number of back-up boats.

Even though most of the year the San Juans are served by four ferries, WSF management chose not to revert to the established four-boat schedule. Instead, they chose to send the interisland boat to Anacortes in the afternoon. The effect was to strand commuting workers — essential to the life of the county — and others trying to get home. Did WSF consult the San Juan Ferries Advisory Committee about local priorities? No. In fact, WSF management instructed FAC members that they were expected to be advocates for ferry management in their communities.

One reason the boats break down so frequently is age. At an average age of 35 years, WSF runs the second oldest fleet in the world. Five of the active ferries were in service when man first landed on the moon nearly 50 years ago. Ferry crews do their best to keep the vessels running, but they do so with precious little support from the legislature, governor, or ferry management.

Another reason for frequent breakdowns is maintenance. WSF has let the system accumulate hundreds of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance on its fleet. Deferred maintenance of an aging fleet is a formula at least for unreliability and perhaps worse.

A critical regional issue that WSF management refused to discuss with FAC even in retrospect is the hated “30 minute rule,” by which a customer forfeits his/her reservation if not in line in the Anacortes staging lot 30 minutes prior to scheduled sailing. This rule is strictly enforced even for late boats. While some arrival cut-off may be justified, it should be event-based—for example when loading begins — and not based a chronically un-kept schedule.

Commercial vehicles doing a “quick turn,” have been denied their reservation even if their late arrival was due only to the late arrival of the boat. This makes no sense. Because space for tall oversized commercial trucks is usually fully reserved, there is little chance these vehicles will make it on the next boat. The health of our county’s economy is dependent on efficient commercial transport. Does WSF management care? Obviously not.

Early on several folks advised that ferries should decide whether their objective was to load 95 percent of boat capacity efficiently, or spend more time putting as many vehicles as possible on each sailing. During our busy summer of 2017, late boats frequently departed with unused space while vehicles were left behind on the dock. Current procedure loads 95 percent of capacity inefficiently.

So what should they do? Boat loading problems are caused by a reservation system that mingles reservation and stand-by vehicles. For a three-island sailing (Lopez-Shaw-Orcas), there are three reservation lanes and three stand-by lanes, and they frequently fail their legal requirement to load drive-up vehicles on a “first come” basis. I suggest they change “drive-up stand-by” to “drive-up reservation.” If they decide to make 14 spots available for drive-ups, then give the first 14 a reservation and put them in the reservation lane, of course adjusting for the expected number of reservation no-shows and medical priorities. The downside of this plan is that occasionally, there will be unused space on the boat and at other times a few people with reservations will be left behind. But that already happens. The 30-minute rule would be unnecessary, loading would be more efficient, delays reduced, and the only people left behind would be those who were really late.

Funding is a key issue. Public transportation is traditionally subsidized, and ferry passengers pay their way. Seventy-five percent of ferry operating costs are paid by riders, compared with just 30 percent for the King County Metro buses and about 50 percent for Amtrak. Ferry funding has been inadequate since the legislature dropped the motor-vehicle excise tax in 2002. Little has been done to address the loss except for raising fares.

WSF’s mismanagement of the fleet, its failure to consult the local FAC and its aggressive disregard for its customers needs to change now, before we have to suffer through yet another summer of trouble.

Dr. John Brantigan has been Shaw Island’s representative on the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee since 2008. He resigned from the committee in November.