Washington State Ferries officials asked, and San Juan County residents responded — emphatically: Service disruptions on the San Juan-Anacortes ferry route, operated as part of the state highway system, are hampering access to healthcare, education, jobs, supplies and families.
County residents showed up in force to the WSF annual community-meeting webinar Jan. 5 to share their thoughts about last year’s schedule cancellations due to crew shortages. WSF staff got an earful from islanders at the webinar; islanders had more to say in interviews later in the week.
“COVID has impacted the quality of service,” said WSF assistant secretary Patty Rubstello during the webinar.
According to an informal count by WSF staff, islanders made up at least one third of the 500 or so webinar participants.
Ferry riders have endured one of the most chaotic years of ferry service and wanted to know what the state is doing to improve the situation and how much longer crew shortages and route cancellations are going to continue. Locals reported that disruptions in ferry service have caused missed medical appointments, strained an already struggling supply chain and resulted in lost revenue for some local businesses.
Expenses and hardships
“This last year, traveling has become unreliable,” said Annette Crosby who raised her daughters on San Juan Island and has lived there for decades. She is considering moving off island because of the ferry issues.
“With doctor appointments and working, WSF has made it impossible to rely on,” Crosby said. During the winter, hotels in Anacortes offer discounts to islanders unable to return home at night, she said. But it costs more during summer months.
“The hardest part is taking care of my aging parents,” she said. “We get stuck waiting for the ferry or the ferry gets canceled or doesn’t show, and my parents get so confused. They cannot travel now by themselves.”
Gay Graham lives in Friday Harbor and suffers from an eye condition that needs treatment every three to eight weeks to avoid blindness. With a regular ferry schedule, Graham was able to leave on an 8:05 a.m. ferry to be at her appointment on the mainland and be home the same day. The recent spate of cancellations has left her reconsidering her options.
“I may have a Medical Preferred Load Program form, but that does me absolutely no good if the ferry isn’t even running,” Graham said in an interview after the webinar. These days she has a motel reservation the night before her next appointment.
“Our hotel has cost us $114, and we are looking at more meals out which will amount to $30-$40. The total [additional] cost we know so far [is] $144 to $154, and counting,” she said.
Friday Harbor resident Linnea Anderson, whose husband’s family lived on Shaw Island for generations, said ferry service cancellations complicated her 82-year-old mother-in-law’s move off the island. After selling the family farm, she had to move most of the equipment and belongings herself because family members could not get to Shaw as often as they planned due to ferry cancellations.
Most recently, after returning to Shaw to visit, the woman couldn’t return home to Anacortes because the ferry was canceled. Instead, she took a ferry westbound that got into Friday Harbor at midnight so she could spend the night at her son and daughter-in-law’s home and wouldn’t have to sleep in her car on Shaw or impose on a former neighbor during the pandemic.
COVID-19 … and the freeze
Prior to the WSF webinar, San Juan County Ferry Advisory Chair Jim Corenman explained how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected staffing.
If someone in the engine room tests positive for COVID-19, all the engine room crew need to be tested or quarantined. While the ferries had staffing issues due to retirements, the COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated the problem. Things appeared to get slightly better in November, but the fast-spreading omicron variant swept in.
“We know that the vaccine has helped protect the staff,” Rubstello said during the webinar, because there was a drop in cases among crew until omicron arrived.
Staffing, however, accounted for only some of the cuts to the San Juan-Anacortes schedule. The other factor this winter has been weather, Corenman said.
As temperatures dove into the teens the week after Christmas, pipes on the ferries froze and holding tanks couldn’t be pumped out. Coast Guard rules require ferries to have working toilets: no working toilets, no sailings.
“Fortunately, school was out and people were snowed in, so not a lot of people were impacted,” Corenman said.
“We are focusing our efforts on recruiting,” Rubstello said, “We are upping our game, reaching out to younger generations, being more strategic and targeted.” Current ferry-worker demographics are heavily white and heavily male, and Rubstello hopes recruiting efforts will bring in much needed diversity.
WSF chief of staff Nicole McIntosh said that WSF is changing its staffing strategy from a strictly seasonal ridership-tracking perspective to an integrated approach taking ridership, vessels, crew and budget into account. With this new outlook, they will be hiring full-time rather than seasonal employees.
“We heard from potential new hires that they need security,” McIntosh said.
WSF management at the webinar were unable to provide a timeline when routes might be fully restored; islanders kept pressing.
Islander Graham said in an interview that she understands the system has had to deal with COVID-19 and the worldwide shortage of qualified crews. “But this has gone on long enough. What I also see is mismanagement and the lack of thinking ahead to what the future needs of this ferry system, systemwide, truly are,” Graham said.
“It seems easy,” WSF director of marine operations Steven Nevey said, “Just hire more people. But it’s more complicated than that. We can’t hire our way out of this problem. The problem really is having a robust pipeline of qualified workers who, for example, could step into a captain’s position.”
WSF is working with unions and marine schools, finance and administration director Rick Singer said, to design a program for employees to be sponsored by the ferry service to get more training to advance their careers.
“We are working on an apprenticeship program that would help employees with things like childcare so they could get their Coast Guard accreditation. Right now, they have to take classes on their own, in their own time,” Singer said.
Unused commuter passes
WSF management was asked why, given schedule inconsistencies, Wave2Go commuter passes still had a short expiration date. A pass good for fives rides between Anacortes and Friday Harbor for a vehicle under 22 feet long costs $203 and expires 90 days from the date of purchase.
Anderson of Friday Harbor said in an interview after the webinar that their family had thrown away many expired passes that were unused due to ferry cancellations. Linnea estimated the discards amounted to a loss of more than $300.
“It would be an interesting survey question, but I bet a lot of people are in a similar situation,” she said.
WSF had worked with some customers to refund tickets during the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown when traveling was strongly discouraged, WSF service planner Justin Resnick said during the webinar. The discounted passes are meant for residents who travel frequently; without an expiration date the passes would simply provide a discounted fare available to everyone.
While there is no guarantee of a refund for unused commuter tickets, the WSF website advises customers on how to request a refund via email or by phone.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2022 budget proposes $40 million for recruitment efforts and pilot projects to assist employees. An additional $324 million is proposed for new hybrid-electric ferries, conversion of some ferries to hybrid-electric and construction of the charging infrastructure to service hybrid-electric vessels.
As for what ferry riders can do to improve service, WSF’s Singer said reaching out to elected representatives is critical. “Write to your representatives. We don’t set the budget.”
WSF governmental affairs director John Vezina added, “Funding is competitive. [Other counties] need bridges, roads. Your personal stories about the impacts are the most compelling, so they can share them with their colleagues showing how dire the situation is.”
In the 40th Legislative District, Reps. Debra Lekanoff and Alex Ramel and Sen. Liz Lovelett all have voiced support to bolster the ferry system. Corenman said he believes they have helped WSF see the critical role the ferry service plays in island life.
“I feel very encouraged by the fact that WSF sees the importance of ferry service” [in the islands], Corenman said. “The test will be the legislative budget.”
— Reported by Heather Spaulding
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