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Rider survey indicates rough waters for Washington State Ferries

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(The Center Square) – Passenger unhappiness remains a major challenge for Washington State Ferries, according to the results of a recent survey.

Members of the Washington Transportation Commission were briefed last week on the 2024 FROG survey of riders and non-riders. FROG stands for Ferry Riders Opinion Group. The survey was conducted between January and March.

Notable takeaways include major dissatisfaction for riders in what’s referred to as the triangle route: Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth.

“On-time performance we know is a problem,” said WSF Assistant Secretary John Zevina. “The triangle is on a two-boat schedule that was supposed to be a 24-hour emergency schedule, that they’ve been on for almost three years. It means the boats are late because we don’t have a boat to add right now to restore three-boat service.”

Even worse, the route is sometimes reduced to a single ship because of breakdowns or crew unavailability.

A recent West Seattle Blog article detailed the frustrations for islanders, who formed Islanders for Ferry Action in September 2023.

It’s not the only route hurting. San Juan Island residents are often stranded without ships or delayed sailings, according to Salish Current.

Nearly 3,800 ferry riders and 544 non-riders took part in the FROG survey, with the number of riders on all routes saying they are either satisfied or mostly satisfied with service at 54%, which is down from 58% in 2023.

The Vashon triangle had the greatest percentage of riders saying they are dissatisfied with service, at 70%.

Survey Program Project Manager Chelsea Benning told the commission, “In 2024 we did see double the number of riders talking about maintenance issues.”

One of the commission members asked the presenters, “Are we doing anything to bring the dissatisfaction numbers down to single digits? I mean are we happy with that or are we doing anything about it?”

Zevina responded.

“I can assure you that we are not happy about double digit dissatisfaction increases,” he said. “I’m really pleased that for the first four months of this year we were at 98.7% reliability, but for the folks that are on those routes not restored, it doesn’t feel that way.”

WSF defines “reliability” as the percentage of scheduled trips that depart within a specific time frame, Zevina explained. A delayed trip is still considered “reliable” by the agency.

Nevertheless, Zevina noted the ongoing headaches for riders on Vashon Island.

“I mean, honestly, I’d like to find the three people on Vashon who said our service is satisfactory and give them a hug because it is tough there,” he said.

Things are improving, he noted.

“We know we’re getting better; I mean two years ago we were in crisis,” Zevina said. “Now we are in recovery, but if you’re on one of those routes with decreased service, it certainly doesn’t feel that way.”

He pointed out a final question on the survey where respondents were asked if they have had a pleasant or outstanding customer service experience with a WSF employee.

“We got 758 responses from customers calling out employees for going above and beyond,” Zevina said.

“I work with a lot of really great people who are working hard every day to make this better,” he said. “No one is callous about the impacts to our customers.”

Trouble with the state’s ferry service has become an issue in this year’s race for governor, specifically the continuing impact of the loss of ferry workers due to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and Democratic frontrunner Bob Ferguson’s backing of building diesel ferries if it gets new ships in the water sooner. That has put him at odds with fellow Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee, a proponent of electric ferries, and GOP gubernatorial candidate Dave Reichert, who took Ferguson to task for endorsing an idea Republican lawmakers proposed months ago.