Ferry system floats plan to restore service

A plan dedicated to restoring ferry service to pre-pandemic levels may bring hope to riders.

A recently released plan dedicated to restoring ferry service to pre-pandemic levels may bring some hope to riders of the Mukilteo-Clinton route, who have dealt with debilitating slashes to service for the past several months.

The March 8 report from Washington State Ferries outlines the “stages” each route must enter before it is considered to be restored.

Of the eight routes listed, the Mukilteo-Clinton is ranked third in terms of prioritization. Port Townsend-Coupeville is the penultimate priority, outranking only the Anacortes-Sidney B.C. route which has been suspended since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Routes are prioritized based on “ridership, service performance, availability and directness of travel alternatives, and vessel and crew availability,” according to the report.

A route will first operate on a reduced schedule referred to as “alternate service.” Service levels will be increased on a trial basis if it is determined to have the appropriate level of crewing and vessel resources. A route is considered to be “restored” if it operates at a 95% reliability rate over three weeks.

“Route restoration is the point in which service schedules are restored to seasonally appropriate levels that meet ridership demand, and service meets reliability targets,” the report stated.

The Anacortes-San Juan Island route, the first priority, is currently the only one in the ferry system to have its service fully restored.

The report also details challenges the system has faced, from aging vessels to staffing shortages. One boat, the Tillikum, is set to retire in 2023. The next new vessel in the fleet, the first hybrid-electric Olympic-class ferry, is not estimated to enter service until 2025. With not many boats to spare, routine maintenance has become difficult to navigate while maintaining service.

Lack of crew – even the loss of a single person – can prevent a boat from sailing, resulting in the cancellation of multiple trips. According to the report, the ferry system has 110 fewer employees in January 2022 compared to July 2019. Licensed and unlicensed positions have both suffered shortages.

A surge in COVID-19 cases related to the omicron variant led to a total of 7,419 relief requests in January, putting further strain on the current pool of workers. Across the four different categories of vessel crew positions, the ferry system needs a total of 116 workers to meet target levels.

In addition, members of the Baby Boomer generation have started to retire, and more and more become eligible for retirement each year. According to the report, 14% of the vessel workforce could retire within the next three years.

But there are signs sailing may get smoother. Fifteen people are currently enrolled in the spring 2022 orientation for new mates, which is required training for licensed deck officers. Unlicensed engine room crew, also known as oilers, welcomed 17 new people into their ranks in January.

“Recent new employee training for engine room employees have averaged 12 people per class compared to classes of 3-5 people during the height of the pandemic,” the report stated.

During a town hall Saturday, 10th Legislative District representatives addressed the question of improving the schedules for new hires to help with recruiting.

Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor, emphasized that ferries are “front and center” in a $1.6 billion transportation package that just got passed, which will help fund the construction of four new hybrid-electric boats.

“We have really been riding – no pun intended – the Washington State Ferries to make sure that they are keeping up on recruitment and training and doing everything they can to retain ferry employees,” Paul said.

Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, emphasized that problems of low staffing were happening before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This isn’t an issue of 2022,” he said. “This is probably an issue of five years ago.”

He added that he would have ranked the Mukilteo-Clinton route higher on the report’s list of priorities, if given the opportunity.

“In all actuality, the fees that you pay to ride the ferry go into operational costs, and the Mukilteo-Clinton (route) is at about 85%, which leads the ferry system for reimbursement for the cost of operating the ferry, so it’s the most profitable route,” he said.