Delayed sailings of Washington State Ferries hit an all-time high this year, as The Seattle Times recently reported, part of a steady decline in performance over the past decade. [“WA ferry delays hit highest mark in past decade,” Aug. 24, Northwest]. The fleet is smaller than ever, with virtually no boats available when backup is needed, and those still running are less mechanically reliable than ever.
By far the worst performance record is in the San Juan Islands, where ferries are the county’s only state highways. Fewer than half of all sailings left within 10 minutes of the posted schedule, WSF’s on-time standard. Island residents have come to regard a boat within 30 minutes of its posted schedule to be something of a miracle. An hour, or two, or more, is not uncommon.
In addition to the delays, WSF has since acknowledged more than 300 San Juans sailings were canceled from June 1 to Aug. 28 due to mechanical problems or not enough crew to meet Coast Guard requirements. These aren’t counted by WSF as “late.” They just never happened.
For some perspective, the canceled San Juan Islands sailings this summer are just shy of three times the number last summer and more than seven times the number in the summer of 2020 (when there was much less service overall, and much less traffic due to the pandemic).
By any measure, the problems now — on-time service and flat-out cancellations — have gotten significantly worse. Because San Juan County is almost completely dependent on ferry service, to and from the mainland as well as among the islands, the impacts on daily life and the county’s economy are far more severe than any other part of WSF’s system.
More than 30 kids rely on ferries to get to and from school in Friday Harbor on the Tillikum, a ferry built when Eisenhower was president. It’s mechanical reliance is what you’d expect. When it doesn’t sail, the four ferry-served islands are cut off one from the other. Kids, workers, people trying to get to doctors or go shopping are stranded.
Bad as the situation has become, Jim Corenman, the longtime chair of the county’s Ferry Advisory Committee, says it’s only going to get worse.
There are short-term changes that could help. One would be for WSF to move a more reliable boat to the inter-island run and have the Tillikum located closer to the system’s Bainbridge maintenance facility.
Another would be for WSF to set up an alert system that would immediately shift all of the county’s mainline boats to stop at all islands each way between Anacortes and Friday Harbor. This was how island service once worked. WSF does it now ad hoc, through layers of bureaucracy and very slowly. It needs to have a plan that can be implemented immediately, and give authority to implement it to someone who understands the county’s needs. It’s hardly a perfect solution because it would lead to unhappy mainline travelers — mostly also county residents, and especially at the Anacortes end — but it wouldn’t leave inter-island travelers — especially school kids — stranded for hours.
Bad as these problems are, the rest of the WSF system is suffering as well, beyond the delayed sailings. Three routes — Bremerton-Seattle, Vashon-Fauntleroy-Southworth and Port Townsend-Coupeville — are each operating one-boat fewer than usual and others frequently are a boat short due to mechanical problems or insufficient crew.
WSF told The Times its awful performance mostly is the result of staffing shortages, particularly among captains, mates and engineers. But anyone paying a modicum of attention 10 years ago would have seen the retirement bubble in those jobs approaching and begun taking the necessary steps to address it.
The same goes for deck staffing, the source of future mates and captains. WSF has a history of treating deck hires terribly, making them on-call employees for two years before giving them steady work, which then can lead to Coast Guard certification as mates and then skippers. It was an awful way to find, hire and keep good people. Did it change its system? No. Instead it tried to blame its staffing problems on the pandemic.
The collapse of the system began more than 20 years ago when the Legislature killed the motor-vehicle excise tax, a major source of ferries’ funding. Fares quickly doubled to make up the loss. Then there was a string of bosses who gradually removed, or drove out, the people who knew anything about ferries, and who were so inept the Legislature, always slow to fund ferries, had another excuse to slow-walk funding.
For most of the last decade of decline, its failure has belonged to Gov. Jay Inslee, who so far has left WSF’s management in place and its performance slide unabated. It’s way past time for that to change.