CHOKEPOINTS

Washington State Ferries to slowly start returning normal service this week

Nov 16, 2021, 6:17 AM
Washington ferries...
Onboard a ferry from Edmonds to Kingston. (MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

Ferry riders have been struggling with a reduced sailing schedule for about a month now, but there could be some service improvements coming.

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The ferry system went to a reduced sailing schedule because it got tired of canceling trips at the last minute because of crewing shortages. The plan was to provide a schedule that the ferry service could deliver reliably, so riders would have some confidence that a boat would be waiting when they got to the terminal. That cut down on the crewing shortage issues.

Ferry service head Patty Rubstello told the Senate Transportation Committee that this new reduced schedule has worked. Those last minute cancelations have dropped significantly since the middle of October, when 341 sailings were canceled because of a lack of crew.

“With the change in our service plan, we only missed eight (in the rest of October), and the promise we have made is if we can crew additional service out there, we will,” she said. “We’ve been successfully been doing that since then.”

Rubstello said the agency has also made some changes with the labor groups representing their ferry workers to keep the staffing issues to a minimum. Under the old rules, the workers stayed with their boat or their route. Not anymore.

“Deck crews stayed on a route, and engine room staff would stay with the vessel,” she said. “We now have the ability to move people around where we need them the most.”

So vessels can now mix and match workers to fill shifts, which is good news for ferry riders. Rubstello said they plan to use this new model to slowly return to full or normal operations across the system.

“To use that flexibility to return service, first in Anacortes/San Juans, and then incrementally bring service on to the other routes,” she said.

As Rubstello said, the focus is on the San Juans first, since those riders have no other options. That slow return to service is set to begin this week.

As for the rest of the system, here is the order for returning service: Seattle/Bainbridge, Mukilteo/Clinton, Edmonds/Kingston, followed by the Vashon Triangle and finally the Seattle/Bremerton run later this week.

And this is a pilot project, not a firm guarantee. The last thing Rubstello wants to do is make promises to riders that she can’t back up. She will assess how it goes on the island runs before making any firm commitments.

To reset the table on how we got here: There is a national shortage of maritime workers, and Washington State Ferries also lost over 100 employees over the October COVID vaccine mandate.

Rubstello told the Senate committee she has a plan to step up recruiting and retention efforts to attract candidates to the state. She has also hired a new outside recruiter. Rubstello plans to go to the legislature to get more funding to boost ferry worker pay, and says she will lobby for a new dispatch system and push for new funding options to help make up the overall budget shortfall coming out of the pandemic.

Gov. Inslee hopes state lawmakers will ‘be more attentive’ to ferry system’s needs

The ferry system has already hired 167 new employees this year.

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Washington State Ferries to slowly start returning normal service this week