Washington State Ferries problem is a management problem - Salish Current
December 6, 2023
Washington State Ferries problem is a management problem
Alex MacLeod

Having sufficient crew on the vessels as well as at the docks is vital to Washington State Ferries daily operations; a boat pulls into the landing on Lopez Island on an August day. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current photo © 2023)

December 6, 2023
Washington State Ferries problem is a management problem
Alex MacLeod

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

It was with certain bemusement that residents of the San Juan Islands greeted news last week that Congress was tossing $4.8 million to Washington State Ferries to upgrade the passenger cabins of ferries that otherwise should be retired and which too often fail to sail for mechanical reasons.

In a way, it fits perfectly with the reality that WSF won’t see a new ferry until at least 2027 and, given WSF’s performance over the past decade, even that is decidedly optimistic. Meanwhile, the fleet, with three boats already at or very near their retirement dates and nine of 21 regarded as unreliable, will continue to be plagued by mechanical problems that keep them tied up, sometimes for just a day, other times for weeks.

But what continues to plague service in the San Juans is not having sufficient crew required by the Coast Guard. This represents a massive management failure of WSF leadership to prepare for the wave of retirements of captains, mates and senior engineers. That failure, and then the failure to take timely steps to recover, have led to thousands of missed sailings that continue almost unabated, especially in the San Juans. 

If there’s one thing an organization should know it’s the ages of its employees. There is no mystery, especially with a robust state pension system, when people will retire. There was going to be a wave of key retirements beginning around 2020. Knowing those positions require several years of training, testing and on-the-job experience to obtain necessary Coast Guard licenses, steps should have been taken beginning in about 2015 to insure adequate crewing.

That didn’t happen, and then the problem was exacerbated when the pandemic vaccination requirement caused more key ferry staff to leave. Still, management didn’t change its entry-level hiring, or its policies to support staff in the licensing process, for more than two years, ensuring the crewing problems will be with us for at least several more years.

Reporters such as The Seattle Times’ David Kroman have catalogued many of these management failures under Gov. Inslee, Transportation Secretary Roger Millar and Patty Rubstello, the head of WSF. Rubstello, the tolling boss for WSDOT before Millar moved her to WSF in 2019, is most directly responsible for WSF’s awful performance. 

Despite obvious and mounting problems, she has continued to run off to international tolling conferences that have nothing to do with ferries. In October 2021, during WSF’s most chaotic period, she rushed off to Santander, Spain, for an international ferries conference. Later it was to Rome, then Tasmania. Meanwhile, she’s paid about $200,000 a year to oversee a system she has failed to manage. (Travel and compensation records released by WSF under a Public Records Act request.)

Nowhere is that failure felt more acutely than San Juan County, where everyone relies on ferries to get from island to island for business, school or medical appointments, or just to visit friends, and to the mainland where ferries connect to the state highway system.

More than any other route, service to, from and within the San Juans has become so unpredictable that residents start their days looking to WSF service bulletins to see if the ferry they need is sailing that day. One day it’s an old boat with mechanical problems. One day it is the lack of necessary crew. Some days it is both.

Meanwhile, WSF is busy trying to come up with a schedule that might improve on-time performance for San Juan runs, but has admitted the only way to accomplish that is to reduce the number of runs. It wants us to forget all the cancelled sailings, which work real hardships on county residents, visitors and the county’s economy, in exchange for having WSF’s performance metrics look better.

This slight-of-hand further reduction in service should be the last straw. It is way past time for Inslee to recognize that nothing will change until WSF has new leadership. Rubstello has failed in every way possible. It’s time for her to go.

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

— Contributed by Alex MacLeod

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