Washington State Ferries has moved from crisis to recovery, new leader declares at systemwide community meeting

(WSB photo: Ferry at Fauntleroy dock, Sunday night)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Shortages again factored into many explanations at today’s Washington State Ferries systemwide community meeting, first of two online sessions (the second is at 6 pm Tuesday), as they did during the winter meetings.

Shortage of boats and shortage of crew were just two of the shortages mentioned this time, but some things are improving, if slowly, insisted new WSF boss (aka assistant secretary of transportation) Steve Nevey:

(Zoom screengrab of new WSF boss Steve Nevey)

“A year ago, we were in crisis … (now) we’re in recovery.” One example: Two weeks ago, Nevey said, the system had an entire week with no sailing cancellations caused by crew shortages. Overall, according to stats he showed from the first five months of the year, compared to the same time last year, the cancellation trend is down:

Nevey suggested the improvement is likely to continue as extra state funding is about to kick in for scheduling extra crew on boats so that they don’t have to cancel a sailing if someone can’t make it to work. And starting today, while the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth officially remains on a two-boat schedule, they are adding a “bonus boat” (or “ghost boat”) on weekdays to make unscheduled sailings, helping the regularly scheduled boats stay on time. This is the plan for the “next several months.”

As for the two regularly scheduled boats – during the Q&A that took up more than two-thirds of the meeting, someone asked when the Triangle Route schedule would finally be rewritten, since it’s expected to take a few more years for the third boat to permanently return. That’s where another shortage came in: WSF executive John Vezina explained that WSF still hasn’t been able to hire a new service planner to work on writing a better two-boat schedule. First they opened a hiring proccess, he said – and they couldn’t find anyone. Then they tried again, found a qualified candidate – who was going to take the job but changed their mind. Now, Vezina said, they’re in the process of finding a “consultant” who can take on the schedule, and they’re supposed to get help from a WSDOT service planner. Even with that, Vezina said, it’ll probably be a year or so before a new two-boat Triangle Route schedule can be in place. He added that they actually have funding now for two service planners, so that if one leaves in the future, they won’t be entirely without one – but they still need to hire the first one before they can hire a second.

Two other personnel challenges affecting the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth run came up: First, the Vashon dock cameras are currently down, because the WSDOT employee who works on cameras is “out on family leave” (and apparently has no backup), and second, traffic-control officers at the Fauntleroy dock aren’t consistently available because they’re generally area law-enforcement officers on overtime, and the short staffing at agencies including the Seattle Police Department leave few available and/or interested for those kinds of assignments.

WSF’s Nicole McIntosh talked about their efforts to recruit for other jobs, including work to increase maritime-career awareness among high-school students, plus a new effort called MITAGS in which they’re taking applications for a class of 12 recruits to start on the path toward becoming licensed deck officers. They’ve been to job fairs around the country, too, she said. In Q&A, someone asked if the system staffing is still hampered by the dismissal of employees who refused to comply with vaccination requirements during the pandemic. McIntosh said that WSF had lost 120 employees but in the past year alone has hired more than 180, so their overall staffing has more than bounced back; plus, it was noted, as of a year ago, those employees are eligible to return if they’re interested.

As for the boat shortage, introductory remarks recapped that WSF is in the process of seeking one or two builders for its new hybrid-electric ferries, two of which will be available in 2028 if the process proceeds as hoped, two more in 2029, and the fifth in 2030.

Meantime, the system keeps running with boats as old as 65, and some boats for which parts aren’t even made any more – sometimes WSF employees make their own parts, Vezina noted. The WSF manager in charge of electrification, Matt von Ruden, fielded questions including how much of an environmental savings the hybrid-electric ferries would really bring. 76 percent less greenhouse-gas emissions, he said. Twice, persistent questions about “wouldn’t it be faster to just build diesel ferries?” No, said WSF execs, because they have a design, funding, and directive to build hybrid-electric boats; even if the directive changed tomorrow, they’d be “a year behind.” Other questions about the future new boats included battery safety – that was explained in minute detail – and capacity (160 cars).

MISCELLANEOUS: If you’re interested in ridership trends, it’s not back to pre-pandemic levels yet (that’s the green line, while the red line is this year so far):

And here’s the by-the-numbers slide with which the meeting opened:

IF YOU’RE WONDERING ABOUT THE FAUNTLEROY TERMINAL PROJECT: It wasn’t mentioned in the presentation (though it got a brief mention in the winter meetings), and we didn’t hear anything about it in the Q&A (although we missed a few minutes in the last half-hour of the meeting).

TO ATTEND TUESDAY’S MEETING: It’s scheduled for 6 pm, online; go here to register for the link.

2 Replies to "Washington State Ferries has moved from crisis to recovery, new leader declares at systemwide community meeting"

  • Griz June 19, 2024 (5:32 pm)

    That’s good news.     As a tax-payer, ferry passenger and perpetual complainer about the disruptions over the past few years, I’m happy to give WSF and my cranky fingers a well-deserved rest.

  • WS_Steve June 20, 2024 (12:44 pm)

    I was at Lincoln Park and noticed a third boat this morning! I rode the Vashon ferry on Sunday and it was delayed by about 20 minutes, so this is a welcome addition.

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