STATE FERRIES: Execs explain pandemic’s toll on fleet, staff, riders, and revenue

(Fauntleroy ferries inbound and outbound: WSB file photo)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The pandemic has hit Washington State Ferries hard, and that’s likely to affect service for a long time to come.

So warned WSF executives including assistant transportation secretary Amy Scarton in tonight’s systemwide online meeting.

But before we get to that – some news about the Fauntleroy ferry terminal.

After many months of struggling for some consistency in traffic enforcement, WSF is launching a “new contract” with Puget Sound Executive Services, which provides off-duty law-enforcement officers. (Not its first contract with that company, though.)

WSF’s Greg Faust said they’ll be there Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, starting July 2nd, and that WSF will also contract with the company for officers at the Bainbridge Island, Mukilteo, and Kingston terminals.

Also, in response to a question about the long-planned Fauntleroy terminal replacement, WSF’s Nicole McIntosh acknowledged that its schedule has slipped because of the pandemic – the “heavy public engagement” that was supposed to be happening right now is impossible. She implied the project’s scope might be slipping too – “We’re looking at what we need to do, to preserve the terminal, and be sure it can withstand seismic forces. We’re going to be slowly working to engage the public on that.”

Right now, the pandemic is the strongest force shaking WSF. In extensive opening remarks, Scarton laid out how WSF’s “four pillars” of service have been affected. In terms of staff, not only have WSF’s current employees been hit by COVID-19 – including one death – but the system has been unable to get new hires trained.

Usually WSF hires in winter, trains in spring, and has new staffers ready to go for the summer season. Training has been affected, so about 100 people who were hired early this year are only now starting to go through training – crew members, for example, have to be trained as firefighters, and there have been logistical challenges.

Even with reduced service and ridership – Scarton noted that WSF remains on its winter schedule and that ridership, while slowly rising, is still half what it was this time last year – those new employees are desperately needed. Faust noted that next weekend’s schedule doesn’t even have all its holes filled yet.

The system is down boats, too – summer service would usually require 19 vessels, Scarton said, but 14 are currently available, as the pandemic affected maintenance, both shutting down the Eagle Harbor facility for a while, and preventing the U.S. Coast Guard from doing inspections. (“Several” vessels are expected to return to service next month.)

And with ridership, vessels, and staff all down, so is revenue. 75 percent of WSF’s operating budget comes from ticket sales, Scarton said; other sources of revenue are down too, and I-976 is taking a bite. Overall, she said WSDOT – ferries and more – is projected to drop $1.3 billion in expected revenue. How they’ll deal with the gap, they haven’t figured out yet, she said, since much of what they do is heavily regulated – “only the Legislature can eliminate a ferry route.” Some money is being saved in smaller ways, though, such as furlough days – Scarton noted she’s subject to those too.

Toward the meeting’s end, she sought again to help riders understand how dire the situation is: Until all four of the “pillars” are back on the rise, service won’t be able to increase. In fact, Scarton warned, she worries that as COVID-19 cases are back on the rise, “we’re going to have even less ability to run our current schedules.” They’re trying to plan things a month at a time, though.

Speaking of future plans, one of the meeting’s 300+ attendees asked what’s in the works for students riding WSF to Vashon Island to attend school in the fall. WSF’s Stephanie Cirkovich said they would be working closely with the school district but hadn’t made fall plans yet. Right now, the distanced walk-on capacity of an Issaquah-class vessel – the class that makes most Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth runs – is 300, added Faust, so there should be ample room for the student riders .

And yes, there was a question about West Seattle Bridge closure-related traffic and whether Fauntleroy-bound ferries could be rerouted to reduce it. Scarton noted what’s been said in other forums – the majority of Fauntleroy-arriving traffic is NOT bound for downtown Seattle, and even the traffic that is, represents “1 to 2 percent” of outbound-from-WS traffic, so rerouting wouldn’t be a panacea.

Overall, Scarton said – describing herself as a “cup-half-full person” – “We hope that by August things will be looking better.” But, as she had warned, they might instead be looking worse.

WHAT’S NEXT: WSF promised video of the meeting will be available tomorrow. (We’ll add a link to this story when that happens. ADDED WEDNESDAY it’s linked here.) If you have questions/comments, is where to send them.

3 Replies to "STATE FERRIES: Execs explain pandemic's toll on fleet, staff, riders, and revenue"

  • West Seattle Coug July 1, 2020 (8:03 am)

    Tracy, just thought you’d want to know that it’s not Nicole McKenzie, but Nicole McIntosh. She’s Amy’s second-in-command. I work for WSF.

    • WSB July 1, 2020 (10:58 am)

      My error in notetaking, fixing!

  • Js July 1, 2020 (4:42 pm)

    Wow. Does anyone know how much we would pay for car ferry per ride if not subsidized ? Or is it subsidized?  

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