A+ A A-

Guest Column by Alex MacLeod: Why doesn't council demand solutions from WSF

  • Written by Alex MacLeod

According to Washington State Ferries, fewer than half of all ferry sailings in the San Juans through July have departed on time. The exact number is 44.1%.

Late sailings have become so standard that the measure WSF uses to determine “late” — leaving the dock more than 10 minutes behind the posted departure — we have come to consider something of a miracle. We’re much more used to sailings being 30 to 90 minutes late, sometimes longer.

Meanwhile, while most boats are late, about 5% — or more than 300 — San Juans sailings this summer (June 1 through Aug. 28) were cancelled due to mechanical problems or insufficient crew. These number aren’t counted by WSF as “late”. They just never happened.

For some perspective, the cancelled sailings this summer are just shy of three times the number last summer and more than seven times the number in the summer of 2020 (when there was much less service overall, and much less traffic because of the onset of the pandemic).

By any measure, the problems now — on-time service and flat-out cancellations — have gotten significantly worse. Because San Juan County is almost completely dependent on ferry service, to and from the mainland as well as among the islands, the impacts are far more widespread and severe than any other part of WSF’s system.

Yet despite its own data, WSF has done nothing to address these growing problems and our County Council continues to pretend they either don’t exist or that they are powerless to do anything about them.

WSF has a whole boatload of problems, from staffing shortages (exacerbated by covid), old and too few ferries, deferred maintenance and, naturally enough, steadily declining performance. In addition, management did nothing to prepare for a high number of known or expected retirements, especially among mates and skippers, and still can’t fill deck positions crucial to meeting Coast Guard requirements and getting those people in the pipeline to become future mates and skippers.

This decline the result of at least 20 years of bad management, the legislature’s stripping away of much of WSF’s budget when it eliminated the motor-vehicle-excise tax and, for the past nine years, by the lack of concern and attention of Gov. Jay Inslee, who is responsible for the transportation department and WSF.

Over those 20 years, the county council has sat on its hands, avoiding the subject central to island business, life and education as it it were none of its business. Despite the county’s longtime, circumspect Ferry Advisory Committee chair saying the situation is bad and only going to get worse, the council has kept its silence, afraid, it seems, to engage either with its constituents or WSF.

The problem of the continuing uncertainty of service — especially cancellations of the 63-year-old inter-island boat — as fall and winter approach, is having school kids from Lopez, Orcas and Shaw who travel to and from Friday Harbor for their education either being unable to get to school or, worse, home after school. That’s on top of everyone who wants or need to go to another island for work, to shop or for medical appointments.

There are rather simple solutions to that risk: for WSF to assign a more reliable ferry to inter-island service and/or establish an alert system that immediately converts mainline service to all-stops whenever inter-island service is interrupted.

But history shows WSF won’t do anything unless push comes to shove, and the only ones who can shove with any force from San Juan County are the council members.

So, council, it’s past time to step up, Or would you rather wait until it is too late?

Alex MacLeod

Shaw Island