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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WA ferry system scraps timeline for resuming normal service

The ferry Walla Walla sits moored at the Bremerton Ferry Terminal.  (Jennifer Buchanan/Seattle Times)
By David Kroman Seattle Times

After several years of trying to predict when normal ferry service might return, Washington State Ferries is now acknowledging what most regular riders likely already suspected: Until new boats come online four to five years from now, normal service is not possible.

That means routes between Seattle and Bremerton; Fauntleroy, Southworth and Vashon; and Port Townsend and Coupeville will each indefinitely operate with one fewer boat than they should. It also means other routes, such as Edmonds to Kingston, are likely to continue experiencing intermittent service reductions, despite WSF’s declaration last year that the crossing was back to full service.

More trips will be added occasionally as crew and boats become available, but they should not be expected. Under this new plan of lowered expectations, WSF’s goal is to deliver 95% of its trips — lower than its historical goal of 99%.

All of this is a change from last year. In early 2023, WSF estimated it could resume full service to both the Southworth and Bremerton routes by the fall. That timeline was bumped to 2024 last summer.

The latest iteration no longer contains specific dates, a sign that even the department’s relatively conservative estimates were too optimistic.

“Now, as more years separate us from the pandemic and WSF better understands some of the systemic challenges related to crew and vessel availability, it’s clear it will take longer to restore all routes to full service,” the department said in its Service Contingency Plan released Thursday.

The shift came about as WSF was updating its plans for the new year, and this seemed like the most appropriate course of action, said spokesperson Dana Warr.

The twin challenges of staffing shortages and an aging fleet are proving stubborn.

Staffing is still below WSF’s projected needs at every level, driven by retirements, resignations and COVID-related firings. Particularly challenging is finding licensed mates and captains, positions that are in high demand worldwide and require years of training. Employees on the deck and in the engine rooms are also below needed levels.

The system is essentially staffed to minimum Coast Guard requirements, meaning trips are disrupted anytime someone calls out — which is occurring more than it once did as workers are less willing to come in sick. Keeping up with attrition will continue to be a struggle, as 50% of the most credentialed deck and engine crew will be retirement-eligible in the next five years. WSF estimates it needs to fill nearly 100 deck officer and able-bodied seaman positions each year in perpetuity.

WSF is launching a recruitment campaign next week. In his proposed supplemental budget, Gov. Jay Inslee is suggesting about $20 million to increase hiring and make it easier for deck officers to move up to mate and captain. The department projects staffing levels will slowly increase over the next two years.

Even if staffing rises high enough, the state of the system’s vessels will not improve — and may continue to decline — until at least early 2028, when the first of five new boats is scheduled to come online.

The state estimates it needs 26 boats. It currently has just 21, half of which are older than 30 years and five of which are older than 50.

Previously, WSF estimated 16 to 18 of those could sail at any moment while the others underwent regular maintenance work. But recent years, beset with hard landings, broken propellers and one grounding, have proved that estimate to be too optimistic.

“Due to the increasing age of the fleet and a long history of deferred vessel maintenance, WSF believes planning for a baseline of 15 vessels in service, with up to 17 available for portions of the year, is the most reasonable projection for the next four years,” department officials wrote.

The state hasn’t brought a new ferry into service since 2018 when Vigor shipyard completed the ferry Suquamish. The hope at the time was to extend the state’s contract with Vigor for five new hybrid-electric ferries, with the first coming into service as early as 2021, but negotiations fell apart.

Absent any clear replacement for Vigor, the state changed its laws last year and expanded its search for a new builder beyond just Washington state. The department hopes to award a contract this summer, with at least one new boat delivered by February 2028.

There’s little lawmakers can do to speed up that timeline.

“I would love to promise that we could get boats faster,” Sen. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, said in a media availability Thursday. “I think we have to be really realistic that in this global supply chain situation we’re in, in this workforce situation that we’re in, the likelihood of getting boats faster is not very high.”

Nontraditional solutions have also started to surface. A group of citizens in the San Juan Islands is running its own interisland service and Inslee has proposed studying the viability of passenger-only service on the state ferry routes. Additionally, the state is likely to continue funding expanded Kitsap Transit service between Bremerton and Seattle.

“The state should do everything humanly possible to restore more reliable service on our boats,” Inslee said in a media briefing Thursday. “Everything humanly possible, as quickly as humanly possible.”