By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Until a few years ago, Washington State Ferries service was reliable, dependable, fully filling its role as part of the state highway system.
Now, WSF sails in turbulent waters daily – with shortages of boats and workers, cancelling sailings and/or falling behind schedule. On the other side of a 15-minute rain from West Seattle, ferry-dependent Vashon Island is suffering in a big way, since the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route has been hit especially hard. It’s long been down to two boats when it’s supposed to have three, and sometimes reduced to one by vessel breakdowns or crew unavailability. Delays happen daily. There’s a shorter route – Point Defiance-Tahlequah – between south Vashon and the Tacoma area, but its one-boat baseline service is not immune to trouble.
This is affecting lives and livelihoods, say island residents – with health, business, educational, and other impacts – and a group has convened to do more than complain and despair. They’ve come up with a list of more than 50 actions that they say could help, and group reps sailed over to West Seattle on Monday to announce their recommendations in the form of a “community report.”
This isn’t just a to-do list for the ferry system. The group, Islanders for Ferry Action, says, “We stand ready to partner with any agency that will help implement the solutions we have documented in this report.” (Read it here.) Some of the recommendations are actions that could be taken by community members. Others would have to be taken on by other agencies or organizations. The islanders know it’ll be years before WSF’s fleet and workforce are back to past numbers, so they’ve worked to suggest actions they believe would make an immediate difference.
One big suggestion: Expand King County Water Taxi service, which is currently a commute-time-only, weekday-only service for Vashon. Get Kitsap and Pierce Counties to provide passenger ferries to Vashon. Also: “Provide adaptive Metro bus service that is responsive to delayed sailings,” with a “separate, ferry-coordinated shuttle … to the town core.” And WSF is urged to “provide more quality, real-time, and focused information about delays and or cancellations in sailings.”
Of particular West Seattle interest, they also suggest some street-level changes on the Fauntleroy side: “Ban parking on Fauntleroy Way and tow violators.” Also, “Provide overnight parking options in Fauntleroy to offer alternatives for commuters to walk on during decreased boat service and at peak hours.” The proposals also include fast implementation of a few items that are under consideration as part of the Fauntleroy dock rebuild at decade’s end: A stoplight by the dock, and automated ticketing such as Good To Go.
One matter of potential life and death is the ferries’ role in getting island residents to and from the mainland for health care, both urgent and scheduled, as well as assuring there is health care on the island. Among the recommendations there, “expand the qualifications for and public awareness of medical-priority loading” and “adopt the pandemic-era concept of essential worker status for health-care providers to improve on-island medical-care capacity.”
The ferries’ role as a floating school bus of sorts for mainlanders traveling to and from Vashon schools, and vice versa, led to recommendations too. A parent who was part of the announcement explained how the ferry unreliability has affected her family:
The recommendations in this area included “develop a commuter parent network or system that provides regular communication and resource options for parents and students” as well as improved options for where students can wait if boats are cancelled or significantly delayed.
Vashon businesses are affected in myriad ways – losing customers, losing staff, if people can’t reliably get onto and off the island. We talked with Cheryl Lubbert, who owns an orchard and grows fruit to produce beverages:
Businesses’ employees, customers, and vendors all lose time and money too. The businesses would most like to see WSF “prioritize reliability” by figuring out how to reduce last-minute boat cancellations and focusing on “crew recruitment and retention measures.”
To go with the report and recommendations, they’ve gathered more than 2,000 petition signatures. Wendy Aman, a member of the WSF-convened Ferry Advisory Committee for Vashon, says the problem can’t be allowed to worsen:
Most of all, for starters, they want wider awareness that the the ferry system’s problems are crisis-level, both for the system and for their community. And with that, action, as requested in their announcement: “We now ask for immediate solutions from WSF, the Legislature, the Governor, King County, and all other supporting agencies. We acknowledge funds have been allocated to build new ferries and train new captains, mates, and engineers. But that relief will take years. We do not have years. The ferry crisis hurts right now.”