Washington State Ferries' decision to delay the resumption of ferry service between Anacortes and Sidney until 2030 is troubling for many reasons. We are in this situation largely because of self-inflicted wounds caused by WSF itself, and as a result, thousands of riders have suffered in numerous ways. The two most glaring issues relate to the two reasons WSF is using to justify its current decision.
1. Crew Shortages – The state decided to terminate all employees who refused to be vaccinated at a time when many were questioning the rationale for doing so, and in retrospect have learned that being vaccinated was no guarantee to prevent or reduce the spread of COVID-19. The mandate resulted in a loss of hundreds of DOT employees, including over 100 long-term, well-trained Ferries employees. Hundreds of sailings were canceled because of crew shortages, causing remarkable disruption for riders.
2. Vessel Shortages – WSF decided in 2020 to retire the Elwah (one of two ferries certified to cross the border) from service because portions of the steel deck had to be replaced, possibly costing $20 million. Spending that money would have kept one more vessel in an already depleted fleet, kept two SOLAS vessels available for the Anacortes/Sidney run and given the vessel many additional years of dependable service. A replacement will cost over $200 million and take years to accomplish.
What now? Many have suggested that the governor should try to recall the terminated employees. But the self-inflicted wound of a vaccine requirement continues.
Regarding the Elwah, repair and restoration costs increase with every passing year. It is worth having the discussion, if the vessel is available.
Meanwhile, the Anacortes/Sidney route has been shelved in a way that likely ends it permanently. The current lease on the Sidney dock expires in 2031, and the first time that WSF expects to address the shortage of SOLAS-certified vessels is in 2034 with a plan to convert the Tokitae, then the Samish in 2035, retiring the Chelan in 2036.
Unfortunately, these metrics do not bode well for the future of a stunningly beautiful, and culturally and economically vibrant ferry route that is now 101 years old.
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