Our own Washington State Ferry (WSF) system, the largest such organization in the nation, serving 23 million annual riders, is facing some big changes. Their regulatory agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, has raised its staffing requirements for four out of six of WSF’s ferry classes—the Jumbo, Super, Issaquah, and Evergreen, which account for 15 of the 23 boats in the system.
According to Gretchen Bailey, Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Chief of Domestic Sector Puget Sound, the Coast Guard conducted an assessment of the WSF crew levels for fire-fighting, man-overboard, and abandon-ship scenarios and found some ferry classes in need of staffing increases. Bailey told me the determinations were based on issues including routes, vessel size, and proximity to land.
Bailey explained that the ferries serving Bainbridge Island are in the largest ferry class, Jumbo Mark II, and already have sufficient staffing. She could not say whether WSF would need to cut runs or raise rates across the board in response to regulated crew increases in the system. “That is not within the purview of the Coast Guard. WSF sets those policies,” she explained.
When I asked WSF Director of Communications Marta Coursey the same question, she told me it was too early to say. “How this will affect finances is still conjecture,” she said.
When I asked Coursey about the effect of the out-of-commission Walla Walla ferry, which may not return to service until the spring, she said, “It all depends on how we manage the entire fleet.”
Now that another ferry, the 1,200-passenger/90-car Sealth, is out of service after a leak was discovered late last week, the system is strained even further, and it remains to be seen how the financially strapped WSF will respond to the added pressure.
One potential area for savings is to reduce crews on ferries with smaller passenger levels. David Moseley, Assistant Secretary for the Washington State Department of Transportation Ferries Division, said, “On some sailings where our passenger numbers are routinely low, we may be able to sail with one fewer crew member, making the system more cost-effective.”
According to Coursey, WSF “has been squeezed financially since the loss of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in 1999 but has managed with moderate fare increases and some service reductions, in addition to nearly $1 billion in transfers from other transportation accounts since 2000.”
With a Tacoma Narrows Bridge Toll Hike likely to go into effect early next summer, affordable options for water-locked commuters seem to be sinking fast.
Images courtesy of Casey Yee and WSF.