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Washington state ferries to stick with reduced schedule ‘until further notice’

Ferry sailings will continue to be reduced this summer. (Washington State Ferries)

We’re inching toward summer, and that usually means thousands of people heading to the ferries for trips around Puget Sound. This year, you can expect longer waits with the sailing schedule still cut way back.

Washington ferry ridership craters amid coronavirus crisis

It looks like what we normally call the Winter Sailing Schedule is going to continue until further notice, having officially been changed to the Baseline Schedule. That means there will be fewer boats and sailings than normal, as compared to a typical summer.

The ferry system’s Ian Sterling said there just isn’t the demand for them right now.

“We’re down about 50% year-over-year, maybe 60% of how many people we would normally carry this time of the year,” Sterling said. “It’s not crowded at this point in time, but we are definitely seeing demand come back some.”

There were some hour-long waits on some of the runs over the weekend, and riders should be prepared for that with this continued reduced sailing schedule.

So what’s at play here beside the lack of demand?

Ferries only collected $14 million in fares in March and April. That’s about half of what was expected and budgeted. Sterling said that lack of money could keep them from beefing service back up when necessary.

“WSDOT as a whole is losing about $100 million a month,” he said. “That’s a pretty big hole to try and fill. That’s one of the reasons that you are seeing, based on demand and revenue, some of these reduced schedules.”

There is also a crew shortage. This is something we have talked about before, even before COVID-19. The Coast Guard requires a certain number of people per sailing. If the ferry doesn’t have them, it doesn’t sail. The pandemic has put about 150 members of the maritime operations crew on the sidelines because of their age or risk category.

Maintenance on ferries is behind schedule too. The shipyard had to close early in the pandemic. That is also keeping some boats from getting back in the water. Put that all together, and Sterling said the system is hurting.

Is line cutting at Washington ferry terminals getting worse?

“Demand is growing and the funding is shrinking,” he said. “How we rectify those two we don’t know yet, but we’ll be on this reduced schedule until further notice.”

The ferry system is planning for surge operations should there be routes that get extra demand.

“Can we plug vessels back in and crews back in as needed?” Sterling posited. “That’s the plan.”

So, if your plans include a ferry ride this summer, plan ahead and be flexible.

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