WTF? WSF meets community's ire after Memorial Day weekend debacle in San Juans - Salish Current
June 2, 2023
WTF? WSF meets community’s ire after Memorial Day weekend debacle in San Juans
Nancy DeVaux

Where’s the ferry? Washington State Ferries officials and passengers have been struggling for several years with challenges that created a perfect storm for travelers in the San Juan Islands over the busy holiday weekend — just in time for a regular annual meeting with the community. A shortage of deck crew, such as these preparing for docking in Friday Harbor, is one critical issue. (Salish Current photo ©)

June 2, 2023
WTF? WSF meets community’s ire after Memorial Day weekend debacle in San Juans
Nancy DeVaux

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Washington State Ferries (WSF) held its spring community meeting for the San Juan–Anacortes route on May 31 — coincidentally on the heels of a disastrous Memorial Day weekend for ferry travel in the San Juan Islands.

Approximately 90 people attended the Zoom meeting, the largest attendance to date of the regular community meetings, along with nearly a dozen ferry officials. Nearly half — 42% — of the attendees were from San Juan Island, along with 24% from Orcas, 13% from Lopez, 1% from Shaw and 12% from the Anacortes area; 12% were from elsewhere.

WSF Assistant Secretary Patty Rubstella opened the meeting with an apology for the “multiple issues that led to disruption in service over the weekend. We take this very seriously.”

She was referring to the Yakima ferry breaking down on Sunday afternoon and being removed from service. To replace the Yakima, WSF brought the Kaleetan up to the islands from down sound.

But by the time the boat arrived, its crew had exhausted their working hours and were unable to continue working. Additional crew could not be called in that night, resulting in the cancellation of the last boat of the day and stranding 99 cars and hundreds of people overnight in the ferry parking lanes in Friday Harbor. 

The interisland ferry Tillikum was also cancelled due to crew shortages over the weekend, causing extra stops by ferries and further delays for travelers.

One person described the scene at the Friday Harbor terminal Sunday night to a local Facebook group: 

“There were hundreds of people — adults, children, elderly. My boyfriend was in the mix, vehicle stuck in the lot of cars giving me play-by-play reports throughout the evening. We never got an alert from WSF. People visiting from other countries said they couldn’t believe this was happening in America. People wondering why there wasn’t an emergency service in place for this type of situation. People gathering together to share ideas on how to help. For example, they wanted access so they could at least sleep on the docked ferry boat, out of the cold and with bathroom facilities. One guy suggesting they all call 911 at the same time and another person, using humor, said ‘It’s a dream come true, I finally get to spend the night on San Juan Island’.”

Reliability ‘back’ — but short on crew, boats

In her presentation, Rubstella said that 5.2 million passengers used the ferry system during the first four months of this year. Although the system as a whole is not back to its pre-pandemic reliability levels for trips completed, the Anacortes–San Juan Islands route is, she said. 

By the numbers: Washington state’s marine highway connects communities around the Salish Sea. The ferry system is unique among elements of the state highway system, yet like all elements in providing a vital link for commerce, recreation, public health and most of all lifestyle and livelihood. (Image courtesy WSF)

Rubstella reported on the electrification program that will transition the entire fleet by converting six ferries to hybrid-electric and building 16 new ferries. The first converted vessel is expected to be complete by the end of 2024. The legislature has approved opening up the bid process to out-of-state ship builders (though Washington companies get extra points), and Rubstella said it is possible that multiple contracts could be awarded simultaneously, speeding up the process towards completion. (For more, see “Where’s the ferry?” Salish Current, Feb. 24, 2023.)

WSF is still short on licensed deck officers. Rubstella said. Currently there are 170, while 200 are needed; “81 more are eligible to retire by 2027,” she said. Before the pandemic, the Legislature would not fund additional training programs, and when the pandemic occurred, many close to retirement age chose to leave sooner.

Rubstella discussed the aging fleet and the shortage of available boats to fill in during maintenance. “We need to extend the life of these older vessels, and we thank the Governor and the Legislature for allocating the funds to do so,” she said.

WSF Director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations John Vezina said “Your three [40th District] legislators [Reps. Alex Ramel and Debra Lekanoff and Sen. Liz Lovelett] are among the best” for advocating for ferries.

Fare increase ahead

Also on the program was the subject of a fare increase. WSF Director of Finance and Administration Todd Lamphere explained that the legislature had budgeted for a 4% fare increase, representing a $419 million target. Fares are set for one year.

WSF is developing a fare proposal, with input from the Ferry Advisory Committees, and will present their proposal to the Washington State Transportation Commission at their June 21 meeting in Friday Harbor.

Participants were polled on three options:

  • give a 4% increase across the board
  • weight vehicles more heavily with a 4.5% increase and passengers less at 3.5% increase
  • give a greater discount (still with an increase) to multi-ride ticket users. 

Not surprisingly, with the audience mostly residents of the San Juans, 76% preferred the greatest discount for muti-ride ticket users.

Questions, answers, more questions …

Of the 90-minute forum, the Q&A session lasted 35 minutes. Among the topics:

Locked restrooms? “Why were the bathrooms locked and not available for all the people who had to spend the night at the terminal in Friday Harbor?” was the first question. WSF Director of Marine Operations Steve Nevey replied “We left them unlocked,” and seemed surprised to hear that they might have been locked.

Emergency plan? Another questioner asked, should WSF have a plan in place for people who might get stranded? Would WSF consider partnering with local volunteers to help care for stranded people? Nevey said he wasn’t sure how that would work.

Reservations off Lopez? “Lopezians opted out” at the onset of the reservation system, according to Vezina, but more recently he said he’s received “mixed messages” with more people asking for reservations. Revisiting that discussion will happen. One challenge is that a larger staging area for vehicles would need to be added at the Lopez terminal, Vezina said. 

Back to Sidney? Vezina told the participants that the legislature has allocated funding for WSF to purchase or lease a ferry to use on the Anacortes–Sidney route. “It will likely take two years. We’ll definitely do our best to find something,” he said.

Eliminating service? Someone asked if it was true that WSF was considering reducing or eliminating service altogether. Vezina answered that “there is absolutely no truth in that — there is no intent to reduce or eliminate service.”

How to help? The meeting ended on a more positive note with the final question, “What can we do to help?” Rubstella responded, “Thank the crew! They are always disappointed when there are cancellations.” And, she added, “Talk to your legislators!” 

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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