Ferry sails almost empty to transport its workers

It’s a test to see if on-time staff helps avoid crew-shortage delays, but commuters call it a waste.

CLINTON — The first ferry of the day from Clinton to Mukilteo is empty.

It’s a summer pilot project aimed at staffing and on-time sailings, but commuters watching the ferry come back with a handful of passengers or empty decks call it a waste.

Every weekday, Pam Solkey walks on to the first ferry to depart Clinton, at 4:40 a.m., to get to her car on the Mukilteo side and drive into work in Everett. Instead of waiting at the dock, the ferry that takes her across the water is just arriving back from Mukilteo, where it has picked up crew members who staff its sister ferry.

She’s watched anywhere from two to five ferry workers get off to go to work. Fellow commuters have told her about two times the ferry returned with no workers disembarking.

The ferry has a full crew. “Why waste these resources when you can put passengers on board?” Solkey asked.

The pilot project is aimed at getting staff to work on time in order to avoid delays due to crew shortages, said Justin Fujioka, a Washington State Ferries spokesman. Ferry staff won’t know until the end of the pilot project whether it’s worth continuing. But they are looking at what it would take to open up the trip to the public if it is kept, he said.

For now, it’s an “alternate commute option” for ferry workers.

Critics call it “a very expensive taxi service.”

David Hoogerwerf, chairman of the Clinton Ferry Advisory Committee, spent most of his Thursday at a state-level meeting about long-range plans for the ferry system. Goals include cutting back speeds on some ferries to use less fuel and reduce pollutants.

“It seems a strange trade-off to me,” he said of the pilot project.

On-time goals

Missed sailings due to a lack of crew have been a big problem in past years.

Coast Guard regulations require a certain number of trained crew members aboard for a ferry to sail. One traffic jam or sick call can throw a wrench in scheduling and delay subsequent sailings, too. Such delays are more likely with early morning runs.

In 2013, staffing issues caused 95 cancellations systemwide, out of a total of 162,897 sailings — about 0.06 percent.

An on-call deckhand system added a year later led to improvements, ferry watchers say. Hoogerwerf said there’s been less than a handful of crew-related delays for ferries leaving his side of the water in the past year.

The Mukilteo-Clinton route boasted the second-best on-time sail rate among the state’s 11 routes last year, though its rank dips to as low as No. 7 in the summer. Delays or cancellations due to crew shortages were not immediately available for the Mukilteo-Clinton route. But since the pilot project started June 24, there have been no delays or cancellations on that route due to crew shortages, Fujioka noted.

The pilot project was timed for the summer months, when ridership spikes and such delays can have far bigger impacts.

The only significant costs are fuel, since the ferry is already staffed overnight, Fujioka said. He estimated it costs less than $100 in fuel costs for each round-trip sailing on the route.

Through the summer ferry season, that would put fuel costs for the pilot project at no more than $8,400.

Early-bird option

If the ferry were to take riders, staff would need to be added at the terminal side, to take tickets and direct traffic on deck.

Ferry riders on both shores think it’d be worth it for the state’s most heavily traveled route for drivers.

Clinton’s Solkey used to take the 5:05 a.m. ferry until a spate of cancellations in 2016 due to crew shortages prompted her to start setting her alarm earlier. She now wakes up at 3 a.m. in order to walk onto the 4:40 a.m. ferry. When she arrives at the terminal — the lights of Mukilteo twinkling across the dark water — there are many big rigs in line, some of which were likely queuing up soon after her alarm went off.

Overcrowding is an issue on the 4:40 a.m. ferry three or four days a week, she noted. Taking passengers on the early ferry would be a natural fit.

The feelings are mutual on the other side of the water.

“That seems like a waste of resources in a lot of ways,” said Kevin Stoltz, chairman of the Mukilteo Ferry Advisory Committee.

On the other hand, would the goal of getting the crew to work on time just shift to an even earlier time? That’s what Hoogerwerf wonders. The Clinton adviser added that he hasn’t heard any clamoring for an earlier ferry so far.

Both the ferry advisory groups would be involved if the state decides to look at keeping the pilot going and adding customers, Fujioka said.

Committee vacancy

The Island County Board of Commissioners is accepting applications for the Clinton Ferry Committee. Members must live in the south end of Whidbey Island. This is a volunteer post. Deadline to apply is 4:30 p.m. Aug. 15. To apply, send a letter of interest and statement of qualifications.

Mail: Island County Board of Commissioners, attn: Pam Dill, Re: Ferry Advisory Committee Vacancy, PO Box 5000, Coupeville, WA 98239.

Fax: 360-679-7381

Email: pamd@co.island.wa.us

More info: 360-679-7353

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