Local legislators addressed recent ferry service disruptions and possible solutions at an online town hall Nov. 9.
State legislators from the 40th District — Sen. Liz Lovelett and Reps. Debra Lekanoff and Alex Ramel — along with other state officials spoke at the meeting as did residents of the San Juan Islands who shared personal stories of how ferry disruptions affect their lives.
In the past few months, staffing shortages have caused unprecedented disruptions for the state’s ferry system.
Several ferry routes have operated on reduced schedules since mid-October. Fewer sailings were offered per day in an effort to improve reliability.
As of Friday, Nov. 19, the Anacortes to San Juan Islands route returned to its normal four boats, at least for now.
Reservations remain suspended.
A post on the Washington State Ferries website said the agency “will continue closely monitoring service and crewing availability during the coming weeks and will reinstate reservations once stable and reliable service on the fall schedule can be maintained.
“Existing reservation holders will be prioritized on a first-come, first-served basis,” the post reads. “Customers with reservations prior to switching to the alternate service schedule are encouraged to travel at their original departure time. Customers can also travel without a reservation and are encouraged to arrive 60-90 minutes early to their departing terminal.”
Lekanoff said the decision by State Ferries to temporarily cut the number of sailings helped reduce last-minute cancellations.
John Vezina, director of government relations for Washington State Ferries, said 341 sailings were canceled between Oct. 1 and Oct. 17. Once the reduced schedule was put into place, eight sailings were canceled between Oct. 18 and Nov. 6, he said.
While the schedule changes improved reliability, they did create other hardships, San Juan Islands residents said during the town hall. Among the problems mentioned:
• The owner of a San Juan Island-based food distribution company said his drivers must wait longer to catch ferries due to the reduction in service.
• Student-athletes must take earlier ferries to get to games on the mainland, causing them to miss more school.
• Fewer sailings also affected access to medical services. The Lopez Island fire chief said patients who otherwise would have used a ferry to get to a mainland hospital are now relying on expensive air transport.
Staffing shortages have been an issue for the ferry system due to retirements, COVID-19 cases and quarantines, and the challenges of training new employees during the pandemic, officials have said.
Ramel said legislators have a number of ideas to address staffing issues. One is to invest more in professional development to help employees build a career in the ferry system.
In addition, he said changes are needed to “modernize the dispatch and seniority systems,” which make it difficult for newer employees to get reliable work, especially in the winter.
“That means folks leave the ferry system altogether,” Ramel said.
Lovelett said some lawmakers are continuing to push for new vessel construction — with a focus on hybrid-electric boats to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
”We need a boat delivered every other year in order to meet our needs,” she said.
Debbie Driver, transportation policy adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee, said Inslee is working with State Ferries to address crew issues and return as many sailings to the schedule as possible. Also, Inslee will continue to propose funding for new ferry construction, she said.