By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Vessel shortages, staff shortages, and even a cause for celebration were among the many topics covered in presentations and Q&A during the first of two Washington State Ferries spring community meetings, just wrapped up online.
These are among the regular annual meetings that WSF offers. Hadley Rodero from the WSF communications team facilitated, and a panel of WSF officials participated. The Fauntleroy terminal replacement project, for which planning is now accelerating, was not included in presentations but was the topic of a few participant questions.
New system chief Patty Rubstello opened with a few words of self-introduction (though she’s only recently become assistant WSDOT secretary, she’s been with the department for 30 years). She’s been visiting vessels and terminals, most recently the Triangle Route (Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth). WSF HQ has been undergoing some renovations and downsizing, with so much telework going on.
COVID-19: Masks are still required on public transportation so you need to continue wearing one on vessels and in terminals. This week and next, WSF has a pilot program offering vaccinations on certain runs between Seattle and Bremerton. Overall, though, “we are looking forward to a more-normal summer,” with ridership “steadily returning to normal levels.” But overall ridership remains down 30 percent.
VESSEL SHORTAGES: “Current critical work” on four vessels, plus the M/V Wenatchee fire, means only 16 ferries are available. Past summer schedules required 19 vessels; with the Canada route still on hold, the current summer schedule requires 18, but they won’t have access to that many until sometime next month. The Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route won’t get a third boat any sooner than June 7th (as previously announced) and one of the current boats is MV Sealth, with a capacity of 90 vehicles rather than the 124 the vessels on the route usually hold.
BUDGET: WSF’s government-relations director John Vezina went over key points, first explaining that the state’s transportation budget is separate from its capital/operations budget. Nothing in this legislative session included any policy directives; the system was funded. “We do have enough operating money to continue the service we have advertised.” Here are the highlights:
Downsizing a bit from the governor’s proposal, legislators funded most of the next new ferry, plus one conversion to hybrid electric (the governor had proposed two, Vezina said):
FARES: A chunk of all that is funded by fares, as required by the Legislature, so the budget discussion segued into WSF’s Ray Deardorf talking about fares. WSF has come up with two alternatives on which public opinion will be gathered starting next month; the state Transportation Commission will decide on one for further review.
Either one would raise the money that the Legislature requires to be raised. Alternative 2 would encourage a return of walk-on passenger traffic, which is still way below pre-pandemic levels, Deardorf said.
After his presentation, Rodero ran an informal online poll asking the meeting’s ~100 participants what they thought – alternative 1 or 2, or come up with something else. Alternative 1 was the clear winner.
ANNIVERSARY: June 1st will be WSF’s 70th anniversary, commemorating the date the state bought the ferry system from the Black Ball Line. The system has a new commemorative logo that Rubstello previewed:
Q&A: Questions were accepted in writing during the meeting. They included: When will the hybrid-electric ferries start operating? Answer: The design will be done in the next month or so; late summer/early fall 2024 is the current projection for when the first one will go into service.
Q: The Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth boat is always late. What’s being done? A: It’s “buckling” under the 2-boat schedule, so the third boat’s return next month should help.
Q: Has WSF considered destination-loading priorities like BC Ferries? A: Multi-destination routes have allotments. But basically, the WSF officials listed a variety of reasons they can’t/won’t change the current procedures.
Q: Why are sailings being canceled for lack of qualified staff? A: They’re still short because the early months of the pandemic pushed back their regular hiring/training time of year, and reduced the allowable size of training classes, and this year they’re trying to catch up but still facing challenges, including a shortage of applicants for terminal and engine-room jobs. Another question on this topic asked: If the staff shortage is chronic, why is there such short notice of canceled sailings? The dispatch team works to fill those openings up to the last minute. The dispatch service closes for the night at 10 pm, though, so some nights they are just deciding on morning cancellations if closing time arrives and they have spots unfilled.
Q: Are WSF employees required to get vaccinated for COVID-19? A: They’re advising employees to do it but not requiring it, and don’t know what percentage has been vaccinated. It was also noted later that state employees are able to get paid for the time they take off work to get them.
Q: How confident are you that Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth will return to three boats? A: They’re still aiming for June 7th but it’s all dependent on vessel availability; “right now it looks quite possible.”
Q: Do they know the cause of the MV Wenatchee fire? A: Not yet. They’re hoping to know within the next month, and then repairs can begin.
Q: Why is a peak-season surcharge charged even if extra service is not being offered? A: It is a way of covering extra staff costs and trying to manage transportation demand – as well as raising revenue to cover the low-demand times. The system has had these surcharges for about half a century, it was noted.
Q: Will there be merch with the 70th anniversary logo? A: Working on it. Also look for stickers that’ll be available at toll booths starting in early June.
Q: What can be done about expiration dates for multi-trip passes? A: The passes are supposed to be a break for frequent travelers and the current ones have a “pretty generous definition” – even just one every nine days – so the current expiration dates seem fare.
Q: Why wouldn’t ferry fares be increased more, given the increases in other charges? A: The 2.5 percent has been a legislative target for more than a decade.
Q: Any plans for new routes like Southworth to downtown or Vashon to downtown? A: “Everything’s on the table” as the Fauntleroy terminal replanning launches, said Vezina. But adding more routes to downtown “would be challenging,” said Vezina, and they also would face a challenge in assigning vessels. He added that many people don’t just head downtown. WSF’s Greg Faust added that Vashon-downtown and Southworth-downtown both have walk-on service already, with King County Metro‘s Water Taxi and Kitsap Transit.
Q: Why would charging for priority loading be different from charging tolls for express lanes? A: WSF has not been looking into that – “it would certainly complicate our terminal holding area and access” among other things.
Q: How does WSF determine where people using the Fauntleroy terminal are going to and coming from, and how is that going into the terminal replacement project? A: An origin/destination survey was conducted a few years ago and “we have pretty good data on where people are going to and coming from on that route,” said Vezina.
Q: When will galleys on board ferries – closed 14 months now – reopen? A: They have just met with their vendor and will be reopening service soon – by the end of June – route by route, probably starting in the San Juans, then reopening one or two vessels at a time, gradually, said Stephanie Cirkovich. They will offer a lot more grab-n-go pre-packaged foods; “the big vat of clam chowder is probably gone.”
Q: Does WSF have any program where an unlicensed person can start and work their way up? A: Terminal jobs do not require certification, and there are other opportunities.
Q: Will weather information be added to the WSF website? A: No plans currently.
(Other questions were specific to North Sound routes such as Whidbey Island and the San Juans, so we did not take notes on those.)
IF YOU MISSED THIS MEETING … the same presentation, and an hour-plus for Q&A, is scheduled for 6 pm tomorrow (Wednesday, May 26th); register here to get the participation/viewing link.