Where's the ferry? - Salish Current

Riders on Washington State Ferries runs serving Anacortes and the San Juan Islands — including this stop in Friday Harbor — can continue to expect delays and cancellations, for now. For the future, 16 years out, new funding for hybrid vessels, full staffing and improved terminals could bring improvements. WSF, part of the state highway system, has faced challenges with its aging fleet, shrinking crew and decreased funding since 2000. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current photo © 2023)


Updated Feb. 27, 2023

Riders and email-alert subscribers have come to expect ferry delays and cancellations on the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route of the Washington State Ferries. Multiple alerts almost daily are usually about delays, but cancellations due to mechanical breakdowns are not uncommon; two had occurred by Friday morning this week. 

The good news is that $1.7 billion in state funding over the next 16 years will bring online new and refitted hybrid diesel-electric vessels, full staffing and improved terminal facilities.

For island travelers, however, there won’t be new or refitted hybrid vessels or an electrified Anacortes terminal until 2040.

Crew shortages and mechanical issues of the aging fleet have caused an increased number of cancelled sailings and a deterioration of on-time performance, but it wasn’t always like this.

The curse of Initiative 695

Lopez Islander Ken Burtness, the new chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee, recalls “the ‘golden age’ of the Washington State Ferries,” which included most of his career with WSF. 

Burtness began working seasonally on the ferries in 1970 at age 16, went to work full time in 1977 and eventually became a captain, just like his grandfather Capt. Earl Fowler and two of his great-uncles. He tried to retire in 2008, but was called back to work.

The golden age ended in 1999, Burtness said, with the implementation of I-695, Tim Eyman’s $30 car tab bill that eliminated the state motor vehicle tax by an average of $142 per registered vehicle. The Office of Financial Management estimated I-695 would reduce state revenue by up to $1.1 billion in its first biennium, and up to $1.7 billion during the next. 

The ferry system took a big hit. WSF lost approximately 25% of its dedicated operating budget and 75% of its dedicated capital budget. It hiked fares dramatically. In addition, no new vessels were built from 2000 to 2010. Thus began a gradual decline that eventually led to the “massive problems” of the past few years, Burtness said.

Chair Ken Burtness and fellow members of the San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee will meet March 8 to begin to address ferry schedule changes for the island runs. WSF, part of the state highway system, has received new funding to refit and increase the fleet and rebuild crew numbers. (Courtesy photo)

Deferred maintenance began in 2000, Burtness said, and the ferries Elwha and Hyak were retired. The ferry system’s traditional hiring practice of requiring seasonal employment for several years before becoming a full-time employee made working for WSF less attractive. “We didn’t change that practice soon enough,” Burtness said. “This winter, they didn’t lay off anyone.”

“Bits and pieces started falling apart until the COVID thing pushed a system that was already weak over the edge,” Burtness said. “It was not able to absorb the shock.”

The low point was in October 2021, when over 140 cancellations took place systemwide in one day. During that same week in the San Juans, 16 runs were canceled in one day.

Rebuilding the crew 

The U.S. Coast Guard requires a minimum number of crew members on each vessel before sailing: a captain, two mates, four able seamen and a chief engineer, among others. With crews on most runs at a bare minimum, it sometimes takes only one person absent to force a cancellation. 

Crew shortages became a problem before the pandemic, Burtness explained. In 2008, the state dropped a program that paid for training to help employees advance to become licensed mates, where the most critical shortage now exists. With crew shortages came more overtime and seasonal employment. Burtness was asked by the union to come back to work in 2015 and worked seasonally for a few years. “These labor problems are not going away quickly,” he said. 

In 2022 Patty Rubstello, Assistant Secretary of WSF in the Department of Transportation, reported that WSF hired 233 new employees, and 202 of them were fleet personnel. However, 141 employees left WSF last year due to retirement or other reasons, resulting in a net gain of 61 new fleet employees. By mid-2023, Rubstello wrote, “we will have restored the majority of our sailing schedules to pre-pandemic levels.”

Moving ahead with electrification

Washington State Ferries is part of the state’s highway system and operates the largest vehicle-carrying ferry system in the world. 

Its fleet and operations are the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions of any state agency in Washington. WSF burns approximately 19 million gallons of diesel fuel each year to support 24 million passengers. 

After more than 20 years since passage of I-695, the state last year passed a $17 billion Move Ahead Washington transportation/infrastructure bill, which directs $1.6 billion to improve the ferry system.

Improvement would include building four new hybrid ferries, extending service and staffing, converting ferries and terminals to electrification and preserving existing vessels.

The Move Ahead Washington bill marked the beginning of a 20-year program to reduce carbon emissions by 76% and significantly improve local air quality. The overall 2020 System Electrification Plan will cost a total of $3.98 billion with vessel electrification estimated at $3.7 billion and terminal electrification estimated at $280 million.

The system electrification project plan calls for the entire fleet to transition to hybrid by 2040 and will:

  • Build 16 new hybrid vessels
  • Retrofit 6 current diesel vessels to hybrid
  • Retire 13 diesel vessels
  • Electrify 16 terminals.

Work on building five 1,500-passenger, 144-vehicle Hybrid Olympic Class ferries hit a wall last May when the state reached an impasse and ended construction contract negotiation with shipbuilder Vigor (formerly Todd Shipyards). With design work nearly completed, WSF is currently seeking a shipbuilder to build the first five funded vessels. 

The ferry system also issued a request for information for upgrading its Jumbo Mark II class ferries to hybrid systems.

This month, WSF contracted with Hill International, Inc., to provide general engineering services for the construction of new hybrid ferries, converting existing ferries to hybrid systems and electrification of the ferry terminals. 

An aging, polluting fleet 

The Anacortes-San Juan Islands route will be the last route in the system to get the new electric ferries, converted hybrid ferries and an electrified ferry terminal. Timetable is already slipping past 2040.

Rep. Alex Ramel [D-Bellingham] expressed concern about the aging fleet.

Three of the four boats on the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route are among the oldest in the fleet: the 64-year-old Tilikum, the interisland boat, was built in 1959; the Yakima in 1967; and the Chelan in 1981. (All three have undergone some rebuild, per the WSF website.) The Samish was built in 2015.

Ramel told the House Transportation Committee on Jan. 19 that construction of new ferries is already a year and a half behind schedule and, while funding has been allocated for four new ferries, “there is a long way to go to get to the 16 that are planned.” 

In the meantime, “We’re looking at vessels having to work beyond their 60-year lifetimes,” he said, and “the importance of routine and funded preservation work cannot be overstated.” 

Ramel said that WSF plans to perform the maintenance necessary to keep the boats going.

WSF considers the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route to be fully restored based on a regular winter schedule trial monitoring period from Jan. 15 to Feb. 9, 2022. According to WSF, the route completed 99.38% of its scheduled trips, and “only nine sailings were cancelled due to lack of crew. Based on these metrics, WSF considers the route fully restored and it will continue to operate on its regular seasonal schedule.”

For the Ferry Advisory Committee, the big issue is considering changes to the ferry schedule. “It’s been the same for 10 years and it is not adequate for the current level of service, and that is why boats are late all the time,” Burtness said. “Schedule changes used to occur about every two years during the ‘golden age’.”

The next meeting of the San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee — March 8 at 9 a.m. — will begin to address changes to the schedule. Two representatives from WSF will participate. The agenda is to be posted prior to the meeting, and a link to participate either online or by phone is already available

Island travelers may one day enjoy boats being on time, with a schedule change, full crews and old boats refitted to operate for another 20 years.

Travelers will see construction this spring at the Anacortes ferry terminal, which has seen only minor changes the past 50 years. The project will replace the existing toll plaza with four new covered tollbooths, add a dedicated ADA-accessible tollbooth and an ADA-compliant restroom within the toll plaza by July.

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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