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Some progress, but ongoing vessel and crew issues plague Washington State Ferries

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(The Center Square) – The Washington State Department of Transportation Ferries Division hosted a recent virtual public meeting to give an update on crew shortages, attempts to restore service, and ongoing efforts to build hybrid-electric ferries.

About 200 people listened in on the meeting and asked questions at the end. Many of them are regular or frequent ferry riders who have endured their share of delays, cancellations and other frustrations with Washington State Ferries.

Steve Nevey is the assistant secretary for WSF. He said despite challenges, the ferry service has logged 318,000 service miles already this year, “which is 10 times around the Earth.”

“Since Jan. 1 through May 31, we’ve had 6.9 million total riders, 3.6 million total drivers and almost 60,000 total trips,” he explained.

WSF has had 29 life-saving events this year, according to Nevey.

“I had no idea that the ferries were involved in so many rescue events out on the Sound,” Nevey said. “It makes sense because we’re out there all the time, but we’re often asked by the Coast Guard if we can help someone who gets into trouble on the water.”

Stumbling blocks remain to improved service.

“We still have some big challenges, shortage of crew and vessels, but cancellations due to crew shortages have gone down significantly,” Nevey pointed out.

He showed a graph that indicated from January through April of 2023, WSF had more than 1,100 cancellations for lack of crew.

“Same period this year, it’s 493,” Nevey said. “So, as we work our way out of our ferry crisis, we are seeing far fewer canceled sailings.”

John Vezina, WSF’s director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations, said despite ongoing delays with maintenance and crew issues, WSF is making progress.

“There are three routes that are still unrestored,” Vezina said. “Fauntleroy-Southworth-Vashon, Seattle-Bremerton and then Port Townsend-Coupeville. We have significantly less service there.”

According to Vezina, the Legislature has directed WSF to keep vessels going for 60 years, and that is an increasing challenge.

“A lot of the boats we have you can no longer get parts for, and all credit to our Eagle Harbor maintenance facility colleagues,” Vezina said. “They often make parts to keep the boats running.”

“We’re down to a 20-boat fleet but because past maintenance wasn’t done, we’re down to 15 boats most of the time,” he said.

Vezina went on to say, “We prioritize routes that are absolutely dependent on us, like the San Juans. We probably won’t be able to restore Anacortes-Sidney until 2030.”

Crew shortages for WSF are an ongoing frustration for those who depend on the service every day.

“In 2023 we hired nearly 180 new employees and we’re on track to have another great year in 2024,” said WSF Chief of Staff Nicole McIntosh. “I’m proud to say in the first quarter of this year, 24% of our new employees are people of color.”

Majority Democrats in Olympia passed legislation in 2023, directing WSF to meet diversity hiring goals.

“What we’re doing is we’re marketing people of color that are working for us, and women, so people can see themselves at WSF,” said McIntosh.

One of the biggest blows to staffing for WSF came as a result of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

“We lost about 120 employees due to the vaccine mandate,” McIntosh said.

WSF did offer fired employees the opportunity to reapply for their positions. It’s unclear how many of those fired employees reapplied or got their jobs back.

In the meantime, bid requests are out now to build five hybrid-electric vessels, which Nevey said will lead to the selection of one or possibly two shipbuilders.

Gov. Jay Inslee has faced pressure to delay the push to electrify the ferry fleet, in order to speed up getting new non-hybrid ferries built, as reported by The Center Square.