State ferries chief steps down

OLYMPIA — The man who has steered Washington State Ferries through turbulent waters the past six years is calling it quits, saying it is “time to let somebody else come in and take a turn.”

David Moseley, assistant secretary for the Washington State Department of Transportation, announced his resignation Tuesday and said he will leave the nation’s largest ferry system in a stronger position than when he arrived in 2008.

“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made. But it is now time for the next person to build on our successes, correct our mistakes and continue to move the system forward,” Moseley said in a letter sent to employees.

In an interview, Moseley said it’s been “the hardest job I’ve ever had. I enjoyed the hell out of it.”

His final day will be April 15. Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson will conduct a national search to find a successor.

Moseley, 66, cut his chops in public service with stints as city manager in Federal Way, Ellensburg and Steilacoom and as director of Seattle’s Department of Community Development.

He had no experience in maritime matters when former Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond tapped him to take charge of Washington State Ferries, whose roughly 1,700 workers and 22 vessels serve more than 22 million passengers a year.

He took over an agency in turmoil after problems with corroding steel on aging vessels incited questions about the fleet’s management and safety.

Two months before his arrival, Hammond yanked four Steel Electric-class ferries from service because of concern over cracks and corrosion in their 1927-vintage hulls. It meant Moseley needed to find an emergency fix while satisfying stepped-up Coast Guard demands for inspection and repairs on the rest of the fleet.

Compounding the problems, dollars were in short supply to maintain existing vessels let alone build new ones. Moseley needed to convince lawmakers to divert money from roads and bridges to the ferries which they ended up doing.

Hammond deliberately chose an outsider to steer the agency.

“He is a person of such high personal character,” she said Tuesday. “It is exactly what we needed at a time when we needed to restore confidence in the system.”

Moseley understood the situation.

“I was an outsider. I came into this from kind of the backdoor,” he said. “I thought Washington State Ferries is a terrific state icon and it’s going through a rough time and I felt that if I can help improve the situation I should try.”

Moseley’s administrative and interpersonal skills have helped restore a modicum of public faith and political support for the iconic ferry system.

Lawmakers approved funding to build three 64-car ferries to replace the Steel Electrics. They’ve also approved funding for three new 144-car vessels, the first of which will be christened Thursday and deployed on the Mukilteo-Clinton route this summer.

There have been other accomplishments. Moseley said state ferry workers are doing better at preserving and maintaining vessels and communicating with both riders and residents of ferry communities.

While he didn’t land a sustainable source of funding for the system as he wanted, he said a bill approved by lawmakers this year will provide a steady stream of dollars for capital needs.

But his tenure has not been without its troubles.

In 2010, an investigation spurred lawmakers to end the practice of paying ferry workers for their travel to and from terminals for regular and on-call shifts. Washington State Ferries paid nearly $6.4 million in reimbursements to 700 workers in 2009 under a practice outlined in the collective bargaining agreement in place at the time.

In the summers of 2012 and 2013, scrubbed sailings due to a lack of crew drew howls from the public and, last fall, a public apology from Moseley.

A 2013 state audit concluded the state paid nearly twice as much for the 64-car Chetzemoka as a Massachusetts agency did for a similarly-designed vessel serving the islands of Martha Vineyard and Nantucket.

Lawmakers also questioned why the Chetzemoka and the other two new ferries were designed to list ever so slightly when not loaded with cars and passengers. Under pressure, Moseley ordered tons of weight to be added to balance them out. Ironically, it’s giving them all better gas mileage.

Former state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island publicly criticized Moseley on the matters of worker pay and canceled sailings. On Tuesday she expressed disappointment in his leaving.

“He did an extraordinary job at a time when the ferry system was in a crisis mode,” she said. “David was always willing to stand up and take responsibility and try to make change. He did not pass the buck.”

Moseley said he doesn’t know what he’ll do next. He said he isn’t ready to retire and is satisfied to let others judge how he did leading Washington State Ferries.

“One thing I know for sure — I did my best. This is a world-class ferry system,” he said. “I don’t think the public recognizes what a remarkable ferry service they have for very reasonable costs when they look at other ferry systems around the world. I’ll be an ambassador for them until I die.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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