(UPDATED THURSDAY AFTERNOON with slide deck from meeting)
(WSB video of Vashon meeting)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Ferry riders’ frustrations resulting from months of seeing vessels leave Fauntleroy during peak hours with space remaining, and a long line of vehicles still waiting, boiled over into everything from angry words to constructive suggestions at the first of this week’s two public meetings.
Last night’s meeting brought a standing-room-only crowd to Vashon Island High School to talk, and hear, about the Triangle Route and what has been, and might be, done about its challenges.
In one of the WSF presentations/speeches that began the meeting, WSDOT assistant secretary Amy Scarton, who is in charge of WSF, noted that their system is “very safe and generally efficient,” and that “ridership is growing … I know you guys feel that … 2016 ridership is highest that it’s been since 2014, and 2017 ridership is even higher … But … we’ve had a tough summer. I admit that, I own that.” She mentioned ferries going out of service for maintenance/repairs as short as 12 hours and as long as 2 months. “We are working hard every day to get those boats back in service as quickly as we can.”
She also insisted that “these dialogues are extremely important,” because management “is not going to know the best thing for your community” until they hear it directly from community members. She noted that the attempts to fix the Triangle Route dated back to her predecessor, and led to community conversations and creation of the Triangle Route Improvement Task Force. “I think as long as we keep this dialogue we can come up with some stuff to make this route even better.”
The dozens who spoke before meeting’s end certainly had a lot of “stuff” to suggest. More about that shortly, but first:
(Added: WSF PDF of slide deck from meeting)
Scarton was followed by Greg Faust, WSF’s operations director, who listed his ties to the Triangle route before his management career. He ran through some basics about the route, including the fact that Vashon is the only destination of the three that has two slips. And he explained how the Triangle Route task force was formed, and started meeting back in January, twice a month at first, now once a month. Four members were on hand and were asked to explain why they volunteered to be part of it.
Faust also gave the history of Fauntleroy toolbooth changes – first a four-day pilot, then a month that “didn’t make it worse,” and now continuing. He also said he’s been watching and riding, to see firsthand how things are working (or not working). And he explained how they reconfigured staff at the dock, where drivers enter. He said WSF has a contract for a Seattle Police officer at the dock “at least through this biennium.” And he ran through the latest statistics on who’s going to which destination (this is in the slide deck from last week’s task force meeting).
The 4 pm and 4:45 pm weekday ferries are the ones they have the hardest time filling- though, as we noted and Faust noted (it’s the one we took, and the one he was on), it was full:
Vehicle ticket redemptions have gone up, in a “slow, steady increase,” Faust said. He mentioned that they’re processing at a “slightly faster rate” and many in the room were heard to groan or laugh.
Conclusions: “Vehicle throughput is the same or slightly better than before.” That brought even louder groans and laughs.
He mentioned that the dock holds 90 vehicles and the boats (Issaquah-class) hold 124 vehicles, and there’s no way to make a change in that. He mentioned the phone ticketing system is now working, as noted at last week’s meeting, and that they are able to monitor how employees work, via video recording of “every single redemption” – which wasn’t possible before the rules were changed to require every driver to stop at the booths.
More discord and skepticism erupted as Faust explained why the “bypass lane” for ticketed vehicles is no longer used. And he contended that it technically was no longer officially sanctioned when the ticketing system changed in 2004. He then went into more of an explanation about why boats leave without being full. “If we hold them in for 15 minutes to fill the boat, it pushes all the sailings [back] pretty much for the rest of the evening.” Faust also noted that the capacity has continued to increase – about 18,400 spaces per month right now, in the three-hour afternoon peak, but they can only get 15,600 vehicles onto boats during that time. If you look at 3-9 pm, “the numbers look relatively the same – we have more capacity than we can actually put vehicles on board. A bypass lane isn’t going to fix it, more scanners aren’t going to fix it,” Faust contended.
Another WSF staffer ran through ridership numbers. She said that schedule changes would have to go through a long process and that the community would be consulted. She also mentioned that WSF is in the scoping process for a new long-range plan, and the Fauntleroy dock work planned 2025-2027, to replace wooden piles with concrete piles.
As she finished, someone at our table whispered, “Let the yelling begin.”
WSF communicator Hadley Rodero reminded everyone of the ground rules, and then it was on.
“We’re down on Washington State Ferries,” began the first commenter, saying that the priority used to be filling boats, but now it’s become staying on schedule. “This policy of departing on schedule no matter what hasn’t worked out very well for your customers.” Other meeting-goers waved their hands in silent support – as had been suggested – as he wondered if WSF had an “ulterior motive” for the change.
Second commenter said she doesn’t interpret the numbers the same way WSF did. And she offered suggestions: “Separate the Southworth and Vashon lines,” for example – line up one on Fauntleroy, the other up Wildwood/Barton. Change ticketing procedures and put kiosks on ferries so tickets can be bought on board.
Third commenter demanded “that a third party monitor the data” because he doesn’t trust WSF’s numbers and interpretation. He demanded “24/7 data” including how many cars are left behind, and “we need this data from a third party.”
Fourth commenter said Faust didn’t talk about the real reason for the backups at the tollbooth – people buying tickets while people who already have theirs are waiting behind them. She talked about the frustration of getting stuck behind people buying tickets just as the ferry gets ready to leave – and leaves without you. “What if we only sold tickets through one tollbooth? It’s a simple cheap common-sense method that at least deserves a trial. … Let’s fix what’s easily fixable.”
Fifth commenter said he’s been on Vashon’s Ferry Advisory Committee for years now – and that its role “changed dramatically 18 months ago,” and that the FACs are now being ignored. He also said that the record of the last meeting doesn’t accurately show that people want to see more operational fixes attempted but rather shows WSF wants to move full speed ahead on schedule changes. He also called into question WSF’s contention that the bypass lane for ticketed drivers was scrapped for safety concerns. He contended that the Triangle Task Force is “hamstrung” in trying to help customers because it’s being forced to focus on WSF’s needs instead.
Sixth commenter said he feels bad for the Ferries workers who have to deal with the frustrated riders. And he says using Good To Go for the ferry docks would be the perfect solution – use it the way it’s used on bridges, for example, and if someone doesn’t have a pass, they’ll get a bill. It should be used for the entire ferry system, he said. “There’s no need for people to be collecting and scanning things.”
Seventh commenter scoffed at the WSF boast that employee morale has improved with the changes. “What about customer morale?” She also was upset about the late notice that Labor Day weekend would be on a 2-boat schedule. “Ferry alerts come through after the fact, long after the fact.”
Eighth commenter said she wants to know what WSF’s “key performance indicators” are, where they can be seen, and can they be changed? On-time performance is “the wrong metric,” she said, and something is wrong when “the line has stretched down Fauntleroy Way and people are waiting two or three hours to get on a boat … at the end of the day, if you’re not moving people, it’s a failure, that’s why you guys exist.” She thought “the average amount of time a vehicle spends in the queue” would be good to measure.
Ninth commenter said that in her 30 years on Vashon, “I’ve never seen poorer service than this summer.” She also wanted proof of why the bypass lane wouldn’t work, and “if there’s lost revenue with the scanners,” what is it?
Tenth commenter said the route is broken. Vashon residents have no choice but to take a ferry. Southworth, they have a choice. She didn’t think Good To Go would be a solution. She also didn’t think a bypass lane was a good idea because “a line is a line.” She also wants to see Fauntleroy Way safety improved “for the people who live there” and that WSF should be working with the city of Seattle on that. “If you can’t fix the Triangle through scheduling, cut Southworth off at the knees. … It doesn’t make sense.”
Eleventh commenter noted all the anger that’s been heard, and what they’ve read about why things aren’t working. He said that a lot of smart WSF employees could figure out how to do much better.
Twelfth commenter advocated for Good To Go, saying it would help solve the Fauntleroy dock’s unique challenges. Close the ticket booths. He thinks that 70 percent of drivers go on board alone. Regarding charging for passengers, he said, “If everybody streamed onto the dock and parked, then handheld scanners might have to deal with one out of every four or five cars.”
Thirteenth commenter said she’s a longtime resident and she expects to wait in line, as long as she’s waiting “for a boat that’s going to be full.” She said she’d heard a lot of good future suggestions, but for now, the bypass procedure could fix things. She said the bypass procedure she’s referring to is not the one that WSF displayed on the slide deck earlier. She outlined what she said was “not rocket science. .. there’s logistics involved … the state Department of Transportation is a logistics agency,” and she thought that with a one-slip dock, WSDOT could come up with a solution. She noted that entertainers even refuse to come to the island all summer because they have to wait in a three-hour line.
Fourteenth commenter said he’s been coming to meetings for many years and feels Vashon residents are being “held hostage” by the fact the ferry system is underfunded and undersupported. “Why wouldn’t you put a second slip” at Fauntleroy? he said. The same issue’s been looming for decades, he said. “It’s hard to believe what the objective is when I come on the ferry system at 10 o’clock in the morning and the entire dock is empty and the boat is empty and the line is up in the middle of Lincoln Park. … If the objective is to move people and not boats,” something’s wrong. He wondered if there’s something wrong with the state in general, as, he said, King County’s takeover of the passenger-only ferries made them “functional.” And he wondered, why can’t they figure out how to get a (car ferry) from Vashon directly to (downtown) Seattle? He also wondered why a crew shift is done at 5:15 pm – the busiest part of the day. And he said it’s ridiculous that the scanners don’t work. Plus – why does the ferry system keep money from tickets not used in a certain amount of time?
Fifteenth commenter seconded the notion that WSF is using the wrong “key performance indicators.” He also had suggestions for how to change ticketing procedures within a matter of weeks “to get many more people work … it would make our current mess a little better.”
Sixteenth commenter said she moved to Vashon two years ago and the situation has “sucked.” She wanted to mention the “human face” of what this has resulted in – senior citizens taken off island to appointments, for example, waiting three hours. “More than half our population is over the age of 55 … You’ve got to do better for us … This is a highway system for us. We don’t have a hospital. We don’t have after-hours medical care here. … You keep raising our fares, but you’re not providing better customer service.”
Seventeenth commenter said that coming off the island is easy, but getting back through Fauntleroy “is a little more confusing” – and suddenly three weeks ago “medical preference,” which he drives – taking people to chemotherapy appointments, for example – isn’t being prioritized any more in the evenings. Nobody on the dock or in the booth could help him understand when they change from day to night processing.
Eighteenth commenter said he has never before seen boats sailing half empty – and he said he’s not exaggerating – “when the line is further back than I’ve seen before.” And he said the problem with boat availability is that WSF is sailing old boats that should be replaced. Plus – “you need a bigger dock … with two slips … it’s probably a huge political thing, I get that,” but for starters, he said, they could expand the dock into the parking lot area at Fauntleroy and find parking somewhere else, and that could mean they have dock space more a match for the boat capacity.
Ninetenth commenter said “as long as there have been ferries there have been ferry lines,” including one with her mom missing her high-school graduation. WSF has more – but does less with it – she declared, even after “spending big bucks on electronic ticketing, the scanners don’t work.” She said WSF should be able to do “more with more” and urged them to look at “customer-facing data.” And she said the problem with the current situation is that it’s unpredictable.
Twentieth commenter said that boats leaving party empty with cars lined up past Lincoln Park leaves her “incredulous.” She had suggestions including, “can you load walk-ons only at the end? Can there be two people in the south booth so they can take tickets” on both sides? “If the ferry is late already, as it was during the two-boat schedule, why is it so important to leave half-empty?”
Twenty-first commenter said that previous WSF boss Lynne Griffith got rid of the bypass lane because she believed in “first come, first served,” not because of safety. She also said that giving people receipts is taking time at tollbooths. She also said that four buses are present in the morning because the school district “imports 275 students” and that’s taking some space that could be used. Also: “You’re not giving us capacity at Southworth.” She urged everyone to send complaint forms to as many elected officials as they can, all the way up to the governor.
Twenty-second commenter said he has been taking the ferry for 10 years. The data at the start of the meeting was “very illustrative” and that WSF reps are “missing the boat” in their interpretation. “If we could expand the space at Fauntleroy, triple the size, it would behave similar to Fauntleroy – if we could stream cars onto the dock, it would behave like Vashon.” He said they shouldn’t be collecting for passengers, and if they didn’t, they would not “have a problem filling the boat.” He suggested that they should let every car stream onto the boat next July 4th and every passenger walk on fare-free “and I guarantee you will not leave with a part-empty boat.”
Twenty-third commenter challenged the ridership stats. “The peak Vashon ridership was 2004, and it’s down six percent from that time,” plus Southworth ridership is down from its peak year too – “ridership is down and service is worse.” He said that if he can buy coffee at Starbucks and get out “in about 15 seconds,” why does it take so long to buy a ticket at the tollbooth? And he suggested, no fare increases until boats leave full – “a financial incentive to fix the problem. … it doesn’t cost you anything (if I’m) late, but it costs me something … it should cost you something.”
Twenty-fourth commenter said that the metric needs to be moving bodies from one point to another. That should be WSF’s mission statement, he said. “If the ferry’s leaving on time, that’s good for your crew, but it’s not for us.”
Twenty-fifth commenter, who noted that he’s with Vashon Be Prepared, has a concern about ensuring there’s a big enough dock – and a safe dock. Signage on Fauntleroy that lets people know what lanes are open where might be helpful, too, he suggested. And how about a park and ride lot? Plus: He also stressed the point that Vashon relies on ferries,
With that, the meeting concluded, and Scarton offered a brief wrapup.
“I’m excited about what I’ve heard … I think we’ve heard a lot of good ideas,” Scarton said enthusiastically after the last public speaker. “The variety of ideas – we will catalog them, we will respond out back to you, we will get the task force to continue to work through these … and to follow up.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The Southworth end of the route gets its public meeting tonight, 7-9 pm, John Sedgwick Middle School Commons, 8995 SE Sedgwick Road in Port Orchard.