WSF service, bad as it’s ever been, only going to get worse - Salish Current
June 4, 2024
WSF service, bad as it’s ever been, only going to get worse
Alex MacLeod

The Chelan — in service since 1981 and rebuilt in 2005 — takes on a load of passengers and vehicles at Anacortes for travel to the San Juan Islands. (Amy Nelson ©)

June 4, 2024
WSF service, bad as it’s ever been, only going to get worse
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.

Commentary: Boosting funding and reorganizing leadership two steps in right direction

There have been a number of overview stories recently about Washington State Ferries, including Tom Banse’s good one May 31 in Salish Current. They seem to have been occasioned by WSF finally issuing bid documents for the first new hybrid-electric ferries, the first of which may join WSF’s aging and depleted fleet in 2028.

For those of us in San Juan County, dependent on ferries to connect us to one another and to the mainland, this announcement did nothing but underscore that the reality that our ferry service — bad as it’s ever been — is only going to get worse.

If past is prologue, the cost of these new ferries will far exceed the $250-million-per-boat budget (the previous bid, two years ago, was for nearly $400 million), there will be long delays trying to negotiate down the price and/or find new money and the legislature will dither.

Meanwhile, and well beyond whenever the first new ferries join the fleet, we will be left with ferries well beyond their expected lifespans, estimated by WSF to be 30 years. Our interisland link, the Tillikum, was built in the last years of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency, 65 years ago. Two others already are 57 and 43 years old, and already they frequently miss sailings with mechanical issues.

To try to hold off mechanical problems, the three ferries that sail from Anacortes  — when they aren’t broken down — now operate at about three-quarter speed, putting them behind schedule. Last summer fewer than half of all sailings arrived or departed on time. (Boosting the numbers, WSF doesn’t even count ferries that miss sailings entirely because of mechanical problems or insufficient crew.)

Now WSF is running a “task force” to redo the sailing schedules on our  routes to try to achieve departure and arrivals closer to “on time.” To do that, WSF is clear that the number of sailings will have to be cut. How much is unclear still, but an informed guess is a cut of up to 15%. As that becomes clear, along with the WSF bureaucrats’ lack of patience with any pushback, tension on the taskforce is growing, with WSF staff complaining about expressions of “victimhood” from the citizen members.

Victimhood for trying to get straight answers? Victimhood for trying to maintain capacity when reliability and staffing already are problems? Trading aspirational on-time service for actual sailings?

Leadership and funding

It’s a sad state of affairs and it just keeps getting sadder. And as Banse and others note in their retrospectives, we didn’t get here overnight. When I joined the county’s Ferry Advisory Committee, the new head of ferries was a rancher from Pendleton, Oregon, a place not famous for ferries. He was followed by people with experience in bus systems, community development, economic development and highway tolling. None had any experience with ferries nor running an organization as large and encrusted with unions and federal regulations as WSF.

The latest leader has experience in the cruise-ship business and, briefly, with WSF, but his boss is the head of the Department of Transportation (more accurately known as the highway department), who has overseen much of the system’s collapse.

But two things really propelled WSF onto the rocks. The first was the legislature’s decision to throw out the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET), an annual tax supposedly based on the value of one’s vehicle. It was a mildly progressive tax and one critical to WSF. The problem was the state got greedy and set unrealistic values on vehicles to increase tax collections, provoking anger that Tim Eyman tapped into with a successful initiative. The state Supreme Court overturned the initiative, but then a cowering governor and legislature killed the MVET. The impact on ferries was huge.

The first thing that needs to happen is for the legislature to restore the MVET with guardrails to keep it from being abused again. There’s a billion dollars at stake, for ferries, but also for highways. It could go a long way toward enabling WSF operations to be rebuilt and make up for the likely shortfall in funding for replacement ferries. 

Next, the head of the ferry system needs to work directly for the governor, not the bureaucrat at the head of the highway system. The present system has no elected official with any direct, visible responsibility for this catastrophe. Several candidates for governor have promoted the idea of switching back to diesel-powered ferries to speed up the replacement process — not a helpful idea — but none has stepped forward volunteering to take direct responsibility for WSF’s success, or failure.

The first one who does would be making an actual, positive commitment to everyone who depends on ferries or rides them to visit friends or parts of the state otherwise inaccessible by road. It would give the governor political skin in the game, and the responsibility to look out for all the state’s citizens, not just those who travel on highways.

— By Alex MacLeod

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