Unless leaders at Washington State Ferries can generate a tidal wave of new money and staffing ideas, the fleet could remain in dire straits through 2022 and beyond.
The nation’s largest ferry system, which traditionally completes 99% of scheduled sailings, slid to 90% this summer and 70% by early October, mainly because of crew shortages. WSF then retreated to what it calls an “alternative schedule,” which removed one vessel from most routes, slashing capacity one-third.
Schedulers are now adding trips when there are enough people to restore the second boat serving Mukilteo-Clinton, Edmonds-Kingston and Seattle-Bainbridge.
But long-term solutions will prove complex and costly if the state hopes to meet summer travel demand and carry the usual 24 million passengers per year at all 20 docks.
Ferry district lawmakers are ready to push for money and recommendations in the 2022 session, while Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to issue his recommendations any day.
Even with bipartisan agreement on the system’s need for improvement, timelines to develop crew skills and replace aging vessels are measured in years. The agency is down to 1,769 employees as of late October, down 198 from two years before. Also, there are 20 ferries now, compared with an ideal 25 boats to cover all routes and allow time for maintenance.
San Juan Islands residents say they’re enduring three-hour dock waits, high school sports trips where kids return from the mainland near midnight, and delays delivering meat, produce, and building supplies.
“This is not a matter of inconvenience — this is a matter of livelihoods and whether or not people can get to doctor’s appointments, continue to work, get food for their families, and access other essential travel,” declared an open letter by state Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, and Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, members of the Legislature’s ferry caucus.
They’ll propose a $350 million increase for crew and operations, plus $4.9 billion over 16 years to replace 10 aging vessels, in the coming legislative session.
“We can’t kick the can down the road for another year, when we need to get started on building more boats,” Lovelett said.
For years, state ferries operated on the brink, sailing with minimum Coast Guard-required crew levels. The system became vulnerable to outbreaks and quarantines during the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by mass resignations.
Long car lines at the dock have eased with the arrival of damp weather, and community leaders praised WSF’s decision to run leaner schedules they can guarantee.
“Our intent is to reduce last-minute sailing cancellations,” said Ferries director Patty Rubstello. Since Oct. 18, she said, just eight sailings have been canceled, compared with 341 from Oct. 1-17.
The San Juan Islands routes returned the ferry Samish to their rotation Friday, to regain normal four-boat schedules. The next priorities are Bainbridge-Seattle and Mukilteo-Clinton, according to government relations director John Vezina.
The pandemic often helped the agency skate by with fewer boats, because many commuters on the Bremerton and Bainbridge routes to Seattle teleworked. The international Anacortes-to-Vancouver Island route was suspended. That’s unsustainable, insiders say.
“If we can get past this COVID thing, what happens when tourists want to go to Victoria, and Port Townsend wants its second boat?” said Jim Corenman, chair of San Juan County’s ferry advisory committee.
Before this year’s mass cancellations, a state Senate transportation package offered a $200 million boost to ferry operations and $1.24 billion for boats, terminals and electrification, within a statewide 16-year, $18 billion tax increase.
“I think we have to consider more,” said House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma. “Obviously the struggle is, it’s not the only thing out there.” Washington’s crumbling bridges, highways and ferries are $8 billion short on maintenance.
Transportation Secretary Roger Millar traces the ferry austerity to 1999, when voters passed Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695, the $30 car-tax measure. The state Supreme Court found it unconstitutional, but lawmakers and then-Gov. Gary Locke enacted the cut.
“We are funded at the minimum bare-bones level that the Coast Guard will let us sail with. That’s the appropriation we receive, and that’s where we were at before COVID,” Millar said.
Ferry operations, budgeted at $541 million in 2021-23, aren’t massively subsidized. Drivers and passengers cover 75% to 80% through fares, which increased last month. Nonusers spent $102.6 million toward ferry operations in 2019-21, equivalent to 1.33 cents per gallon of gas tax and 1% of license fees. Another $141 million in federal COVID-relief money backfilled a recent $100 million loss of ticket sales. Boats and facilities will receive $505 million in 2021-23, predominantly state and federal dollars from nonpassengers.
Going forward, the Legislature could tap future gasoline, vehicle and carbon taxes.
And the ferry system could benefit from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed Nov. 15 by President Joe Biden, which is expected to send Washington state $5.3 billion over five years for roads, bridges, and to replace fish-blocking culverts. That should free up future state money for ferries, said former Senate Transportation Committee Chair Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, now secretary of state.
To remedy staffing shortages, challenges include the scheduling system and obstacles to new hires that keep them from moving ahead in their careers.
Millar himself disparaged the longtime scheduling system, where entry-level mariners begin without steady income and shifts, especially in the slower winter months.
“Those folks graduating became on-call employees. They had the opportunity to sit by their phone and wait for it to ring and ‘Hey we need you up in the Islands’ or ‘Hey we need you down on Vashon,’ or ‘Hey we need you on the Bainbridge run’ and that’s their life for the first several years of their employment at the agency. And the world has changed with a global shortage of qualified mariners, so it’s a very competitive market.”
Matt Shriner, a former merchant mariner, says he twice applied to work on ferries, but balked at the on-call situation. Deckhands can’t accumulate “sea time” fast enough to win timely promotions to the officer ranks, Shriner said.
“It makes what should be a highly desirable career path into a bad joke and artificially magnifies regulatory bottlenecks for filling crew positions,” he said.
Maritime unions warned back in 2013, after a weekend of 31 canceled trips, that WSF wasn’t training enough deck crew fast enough to replace aging workers. Then-WSF chief David Moseley apologized, and explained tight state budgets were partly to blame.
This year, more than 200 employees have retired since July. Some older crew who loved the work finally left during the pandemic, said Millar. Senior masters average 62 years of age, captains 57, and chief engineers 51.
“We are still just reaching the peak of the curve and there is no indication that retirements will slow down,” said Capt. Dan Twohig, regional representative for the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots.
Since the pandemic hit, roughly 400 ferry workers were off work for 14-day quarantines. By this August, the strained staff filed an unprecedented 91 time-off relief requests. Five employees that month were discovered with COVID on the job.
Then came the governor’s Oct. 18 vaccination deadline, when 22 workers retired and 129 resigned. Another 32 left until they get fully vaccinated.
“I couldn’t get underway for six or seven days, because we don’t have crew,” said Capt. Alex Johnson, as the M/V Kaleetan sailed toward Edmonds under fair skies. “We were already short-handed before the pandemic, but the governor’s mandate hit us hard. I was very surprised how many quit.” Johnson said he spent tied-up hours studying safety procedures.
“It’s disgusting when you look out on the parking lot and people have to wait two hours to get on a boat because we’re short of employees,” he said.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, says ferry and other transportation workers ought to have more options than Inslee’s mandate allows. “Even [California] Governor Gavin Newsom, as liberal as he is, gave people an opportunity to get tested once or twice a week so they could keep their job.” (California’s weekly test option is plagued by poor compliance, the Los Angeles Times reported.)
WSF hired 167 operating employees this year, hoping to catch up by training new recruits more often.
Rubstello suggests higher wages, plus a long-term commitment to pay people for training trips or classes to earn promotion. Currently, an entry-level “ordinary seaman” makes $23.01 per hour, rising to $27.07 with 5,200 hours experience. Some other rates are $28.49 for oilers, $34.21 for a quartermaster, $44.62 for mates, $51.73 for chief engineers and $55.27 and above for captains.
Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle, and Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, want ferries added to the state’s program that provides scholarships and apprenticeships to minority and female construction workers, to broaden the talent pool. “We are not a diverse group at Ferries,” Rubstello told legislators.
More staffing flexibility
To assure a reliable schedule for the public, ferry managers in early November signed a deal with the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association to allow engine-room staff on five idle boats to move onto active boats, through Dec. 31.
“The unions have been great partners in this,” Millar said.
Engine crews typically stay with one vessel, whether docked or sailing. When the Kaleetan couldn’t sail this fall, they stayed with that boat, catching up on minor maintenance, such as replacing fuel injectors inside the diesel engines, said Chief Engineer Michael Fisher.
Reassigning people isn’t easy, because six models of boats require specialized knowledge. Engineers and captains also become a team, to carry out throttle commands tens of thousands of times a year without crashing.
Also, the ferry system’s obsolete dispatch system would require an estimated $14 million to replace with web software, according to a WSF document. “We have people making phone calls, 500 to 600 phone calls a day. One thing it does is create a lot of stress. Another is that mistakes happen,” Rubstello told lawmakers.
If dispatchers can’t fill predawn shifts, the ships miss their Coast Guard quotas for crew levels to evacuate or perform rescues. They don’t sail.
Upfront investment in hiring might save money.
Crew shortages affect overtime pay, which was $5.8 million higher in 2019 than 2013. Engine-room workers accrue overtime while training; deckhands scramble to fill vacant shifts; repair crews stay busy fixing old boats. A $400,000 consulting study to address staffing is due December 2022.
Deckhand Matthew George, of Anacortes, suggests: “If they could do only one thing, it should be to over-crew the vessel. If somebody has a flat tire, or their kids gets sick two hours before work — if you have another expert deckhand, that’s going to help.” Engine workers could cross-train more, to run multiple boats, he said.
Millar said over-crewing is under consideration.
Washington state suspended ferry construction to save money in the ’00s, until the Chetzemoka in 2010 and six boats afterward.
Twenty are seaworthy, plus the M/V Wenatchee is expected back soon after an engine fire damaged it last spring.
Mechanical breakdowns caused 136 cancellations last month.
San Juan travelers must make do with M/V Tillikum, built in 1959, as part of their fleet. It travels 12 knots maximum, and is prone to small breakdowns. “Extensive vessel delays” canceled four midday trips last Wednesday and again Thursday.
The next new ferry is to arrive in 2024, a battery-electric hybrid that hauls 144 cars. Construction begins soon at Vigor in Seattle.
Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor, advocates a perpetually funded 25-boat fleet, which he says would pay off in reduced maintenance costs.
“Replacing a ferry every other year means we’re going to have a 50-year service life, which is much more predictable for our communities,” Paul added. “Builders will have continuous work. We’ll have more contractors.”
The state intends to electrify 16 new and existing boats, starting with Wenatchee by spring 2023. The Wenatchee conversion is funded by $35 million of the $141 million settlement Volkswagen paid the state for VW’s Clean Air Act violations. Hybrid batteries will reduce carbon pollution 20% when combined with diesel engines, then 75% to 95% after onshore chargers plug in, WSF predicts. Electrification can reduce noise that harms orca whales.
Biden’s infrastructure plan provides $570 million nationally for boat and terminal construction, and $50 million to convert diesel boats to cleaner power.
King, the ranking Republican in the Senate Transportation Committee, defended the legislature’s track record, saying members in the 2010s funded several boats and the 2024 hybrid.
Along with other GOP members, King suggests moving sales taxes from car purchases into transportation instead of general funds. Add to that federal money, and King contends the state can afford a couple more ferries to keep the network afloat, without raising taxes in 2022.