Anacortes Ferry

The M/V Samish sits docked Oct. 9 at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal.

Local legislators addressed recent ferry service disruptions and possible solutions at an online town hall Tuesday evening.

State legislators from the 40th District — Sen. Liz Lovelett and Reps. Debra Lekanoff and Alex Ramel — along with state officials spoke at the meeting as did residents of the San Juan Islands who shared personal stories of how ferry disruptions have impacted their lives.

In the past few months, staffing shortages have resulted in unprecedented disruptions for the state’s ferry system.

Since Oct. 16, several ferry routes have been operating on reduced schedules. Fewer sailings have been offered per day in an effort to improve reliability.

The Anacortes to San Juan Islands route has been operating with three boats instead of the usual four.

As soon as next week, four-boat service may resume on the Anacortes to San Juan Islands route, John Vezina, director of government relations for Washington State Ferries, said.

“We’re going to do it on a trial basis,” he said.

Vezina said the Anacortes to San Juan Islands route — a critical mode of transport for San Juan Islands residents — is the first route that will get a boat back. He said no decision has been made on resuming reservations.

Lekanoff said the decision by State Ferries to temporarily cut the number of sailings has helped reduce last-minute cancellations.

Vezina said between Oct. 1 and Oct. 17, State Ferries canceled 341 sailings. In contrast, after the reduced schedule was put into place, eight sailings were canceled between Oct. 18 and Nov. 6, he said.

While the schedule changes have improved reliability, they have created other hardships, San Juan Islands residents said Tuesday.

The owner of a San Juan Island-based food distribution company said his drivers are waiting longer to catch ferries due to the reduction in service.

For student athletes, the reduced schedule has forced them to take earlier ferries to get to games on the mainland, causing them to miss more school, one girl said.

Fewer sailings has also impacted 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.

Vezina said even if State Ferries decides against adding back a fourth boat, it will look at improving gaps in service with the three-boat schedule.

Staffing shortages have been a problem 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 previously.

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 legislators are continuing to push for new vessel construction — with a focus on hybrid-electric boats to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — to replace aging boats.

”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.

In addition, she said Inslee will continue to propose funding for new ferry construction.

— Reporter Jacqueline Allison: jallison@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2145, Twitter: @Jacqueline_SVH

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