By Jerry Cornfield and Sharon Salyer Herald writers
Update, 10:50 a.m., July 31: Ferry riders are encountering reduced service and long waits between Edmonds and Kingston Thursday morning as the state continues to operate only one boat on the route.
Washington State Ferries issued an alert at 5:10 a.m. Thursday telling drivers to anticipate long wait times.
Capt. George Capacci, interim ferries director said the route will again be served by two boats Thursday afternoon when the 124-vehicle Chelan arrives. It is being diverted from the international route between Anacortes and Sidney, British Columbia.
EDMONDS — A trying situation worsened Wednesday for bedeviled ferry riders when the state’s newest vessel conked out, forcing cancellations of several runs between Mukilteo and Whidbey Island.
Officials of Washington State Ferries took the practically new 144-car Tokitae out of service for unspecified repairs shortly before its 2 p.m. departure from Clinton. It returned to operation two hours later.
The Tokitae’s temporary sidelining came one day after another vessel, the Tacoma, broke down on the water heading to Bainbridge Island from Seattle with 405 passengers and 138 vehicles on board.
With the sidelining of the Tokitae, the nation’s largest passenger ferry system had five of its 22 vessels out of service Wednesday evening.
Ferry officials scrambled to fill the gap partly by diverting one of two boats on the Edmonds-Kingston route to serve the Seattle-Bremerton run. That meant half as many trips out of Edmonds and, for some, twice as long waits.
Two-boat service resumes Thursday with the arrival of the 124-vehicle Chelan, officials said.
“Situations such as these aren’t easy because of the travel time impact to commuters and passengers,” state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said in an email.
“Our goal (Wednesday) was getting passengers where they needed to go. Some passengers experienced delays last night and today and I want to thank people for their patience,” she said. “Our goal tomorrow is to continue to improve travel times for commuters and of course determine what needs to happen to get the Tacoma back into the rotation.”
At times Wednesday, the line-up of cars for the Kingston-bound ferry extended up the hill from the Edmonds terminal and at other times shrunk to no waiting or a one-boat wait.
Scott Legler, a Washington State Patrol trooper working near the ferry dock, said generally the lines hadn’t been too bad, but “every once in a while there’s a long delay.” Most people who are commuters had figured it out, he said.
Rex Rice, of Port Townsend, said he needed to be at Sea-Tac airport in the morning to pick up his wife, Carrie. Rather than wait for the Kingston Ferry and risk being late, he drove around by way of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
The couple opted for a ferry ride home and sat parked in the shade before being the last to drive on for the 1:40 p.m. crossing.
Two of the state ferries, the 144-car Yakima and the 124-vehicle Kitsap, are undergoing scheduled maintenance and are to return to service in September. A third, the 202-car Wenatchee, is getting repaired for a leaky seal.
That left 19 available boats Tuesday morning, the minimum needed to carry out the ferry system’s 450 scheduled crossings a day.
Then the Tacoma failed and the repositioning began. On Wednesday it resulted in the state canceling 20 runs — 10 each way — between Edmonds and Kingston.
Interim ferries Director George Capacci said the chain of events exposes the state’s lack of boats, and thus back-up options.
“We are a fragile organization. We are on the edge,” he said. “I don’t have six other ships. I don’t have a lot of extra people. When something like this happens it’s a wake-up call of how we are so fragile.
“We are operating efficiently but it is unsustainable in the long term,” he said.
Further repositioning of vessels forced Thursday and Friday cancellations of international departures from Anacortes, Friday Harbor and Sidney, B.C.
Two lawmakers who’ve closely monitored management of Washington State Ferries agreed with Capacci’s assessment of a system with little margin for vessel breakdowns.
“What it does show is we have an aging fleet that is stretched to the max and we’ve got to keep building” boats, said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor.
Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, said constructing new vessels is “above all else” the focus of a caucus of lawmakers from communities served by car- and passenger ferries.
“We need to ensure that we have the capital investments needed to be able to provide reliable and safe service for the next 50 to 60 years,” she said.
Seaquist also said ferry officials can do a better job on publicizing their plans for dealing with such crises.
“What we are missing is a master plan for what we need to be doing,” he said. “I do think that by today (Wednesday) we should have had a game plan.”
Seaquist emailed Capacci on Wednesday asking if the state might take steps like adding earlier and later sailings to boost service levels.
He also called for an independent probe of what knocked out the Tacoma’s propulsion, leaving it to float without power.
“We have to have a proper, thorough investigation,” he said. “They need to find out if it was a material failure, if it was a training failure or did (the equipment) just burn out.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dospueblos