Ferry workers wait for cars to start loading onto the M/V Kitsap on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Ferry workers wait for cars to start loading onto the M/V Kitsap on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Longtime state ferry commuters: ‘This is the worst it’s been’

Thousands of commuters rely on the Edmonds-Kingston and Mukilteo-Clinton ferries. But delays and cancellations have piled up.

IN PUGET SOUND ABOARD M/V SPOKANE — Suzanne Woodard couldn’t rely on the ferries to get her from Clinton to Mukilteo on time for work.

So in February, she resigned from her job at Providence’s hospital in Everett.

No matter how hard Woodard tried, she said, she couldn’t meet her employer’s expectations.

She attended rider feedback programs and committee meetings. She met with ferry personnel. Still, nothing changed.

Woodard isn’t alone.

Roughly 6 million passengers per year count on the Mukilteo-Clinton and Edmonds-Kingston ferries to get them where they need to go.

Washington State Ferries’ aging boats have broken down for weeks or months at a time, sometimes leaving Snohomish County’s ferry routes — some of the busiest in the state — at half-capacity with only one boat. It creates a domino effect of backups on both sides of Puget Sound.

Systemwide, there were roughly 31,000 fewer sailings scheduled in 2022, compared to before the pandemic.

As of Friday, only 15 of 21 state ferries were in regular operation, with others undergoing maintenance and repairs. It leaves no wiggle room to operate a schedule that needs 15 boats at minimum.

A shortage of crew members has also resulted in delayed and canceled sailings.

The delays haven’t meant much for walk-on passengers or bicyclists, who don’t need to worry about a boat’s capacity, unless the Seattle Seahawks are going to the playoffs.

Drivers and their passengers can choose to drive around. But it’s a 2½-hour detour each way for Whidbey Island commuters like Woodard. On the Edmonds-Kingston route, it’s about the same — plus a roll of the dice with Seattle and Tacoma traffic.

Grumbling commuters might be tempted to ask: “WTF, WSF?”

It’s been a snowballing problem for commuters and tourists alike. Upgrading the fleet will take decades.

The state doesn’t expect contractors to finish a new vessel until 2028, state ferries spokesperson Ian Sterling said.

Last week, Washington State Ferries put out a new request for builders. Due to the passage of House Bill 1846 in April, the organization is now allowed to hire out-of-state builders, with the goal of speeding up the process. Sterling expects the state to choose a few builders by next summer.

‘Every minute counts to me’

At 1 p.m. on a Friday earlier this month, the holding lanes in Edmonds were already full.

People in cars perched their books, laptops and phones on the dash, passing the time until the next boat glided into view. These days, Victor Johnston leaves work a few hours early and finishes the day on his laptop, in line.

Some cars sat empty. Drivers paced Brackett’s Landing or grabbed a coffee or beers at Rory’s. Others slept in their seats.

Carl Krieger, of Kingston, reclined in his seat, scrolling through his phone after a long work day. He commutes to Everett five days a week.

“I have never seen it this bad and I’ve been taking ferries my whole life,” he said, with clear annoyance in his voice. “This is the worst it’s been. It’s (expletive) ridiculous.”

Krieger been waiting over an hour already. He had another hour to go. He’d rather be home with his family.

“It’s a pain in the (expletive) because I have to be away from my family that much longer,” he said. “Every minute counts to me.”

People look out the window from inside the M/V Kitsap on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People look out the window from inside the M/V Kitsap on Friday, Dec. 1, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

State lawmakers deserve most of the blame, Krieger said.

“We’re one of the highest-taxed states in the nation, there’s no damn reason why we should be having to deal with this.” he said. “Get your (expletive) together and get the damn ferries going.”

The ferries have been Jay Michaud’s primary mode of public transportation since the turn of the century. He travels 25 miles from Kingston to Everett for work at Aviation Technical Services. He used to brag about the ferries’ consistency, until the pandemic.

“That has all changed in the past couple of years,” Michaud said. “Each week has been plagued with delays and cancellations.”

On bad days, Michaud’s commute can be up to four hours.

Some commuters, waiting in the vehicle line, said the ferry fare doesn’t match the service. A pass for 20 rides for drivers can cost up to $284, depending on vehicle length.

“I cannot pretend to understand what running a ferry system looks like,” Michaud said. “I can, however, say out of frustration that as the past several years have gone by I am paying more and more to ride, with less and less service and dependability.”

As the afternoon went on, the line of cars stretched further into the distance.

‘One thing that drivers commuters crazy’

Waiting is part of getting to and from the mainland, but usually it’s not this bad, said Logan Hanna, a lifelong Whidbey Island resident.

He takes the ferry on his way to work at Boeing in Everett.

“As an islander, you learn to live with the occasional delay and extended wait times that come with ferries,” Hanna said. “Every islander knows and accepts this. However, especially since the pandemic, it’s been a nightmare.”

He spends about two hours in line each way — “unpaid” time away from his family, he said. He has missed his kids’ sports games and extracurricular activities waiting for the ferry.

“One thing that drives commuters crazy is that we know there is no fix in sight,” Hanna said. “No one is held accountable for the failures. We’ve heard the excuses and the most common one is that the ferries are ‘underfunded.’ There’s no way that’s remotely possible with how expensive the ferries are and how full the routes are.”

The ferry system is low on boats, cash and employees, spokesperson Ian Sterling said.

In 2019, about 90% of sailings departed within 10 minutes of the scheduled departure time. That number dropped to 87% in 2021, then 83% in 2022.

Four years ago, ferries missed 913 scheduled trips. Last year, that figure was 2,775.

This summer, the boats missed 1,145 trips. Statistics for the entire year haven’t been processed yet, ferry system spokesperson Justin Fujioka said.

Local shipyards are busy, Sterling said, and don’t have time to immediately fix the state-owned vessels. A boat can sit in a shipyard for months over an issue that could be fixed in an afternoon, he said.

Meanwhile, the state’s vessels aren’t getting any younger. Six were built over 40 years ago. Ferries can last about 60 years if maintained properly.

“Some of these ferries were built in the ’70s or ’80s, they run almost 24 hours a day in harsh saltwater without stopping,” Sterling said.

Staffing is another roadblock. Sailings are delayed and canceled when there aren’t enough crew to meet Coast Guard requirements.

The state ferry system is about 20 to 30 people short of required numbers for both licensed and unlicensed employees, according to employment reports. But it can take years to train new licensed crew members.

In 1999, anti-tax crusader and longtime Mukilteo resident Tim Eyman led an initiative bringing car tab costs down to a flat $30 fee. This “eliminated direct WSF funding” that the system depended on, Sterling said.

“This led to an increase in passenger fares and a reduction in schedules, which caused a decline in ridership,” he said. “Washington State Ferries has been underfunded in the years since.”

Sterling added: “The legacy of this is now being felt in the form of a smaller and aging fleet.”

Krieger thinks the governor’s COVID vaccine mandate of state employees set the ferries back.

“They (expletive) up by firing everybody that wouldn’t get vaccinated two years ago,” he said. “They shot themselves in the foot.”

In 2021, 130 employees “chose to separate” from the ferry system following Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate for state employees to be vaccinated, Sterling said.

“We have hired many more than that since,” he said.

‘They’re working on it’

Outside the Kingston Financial Center, the reader board quipped:

“All I want for Christmas is a reliable 2-boat Kingston ferry,” according to a post this week on a Facebook page called “Ferries of the Salish Sea.”

State Sen. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds and chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the two main struggles right now are “staffing and boat maintenance.”

“This past session, we prioritized legislation to boost recruitment of new staff, promote existing staff, and procure new boats in order to get more reliable vessels on the water and sooner,” he said in a written statement. “And while we made enormous progress, it does take time to see the effects of those investments.”

In April, state lawmakers passed a $13.4 billion transportation budget, with money to maintain existing boats and commission hybrid-electric ferries.

Legislators also approved $12.7 million to address crew issues, said Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for Inslee.

Cars line up for the Edmonds ferry in Edmonds, Washington on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Cars line up for the Edmonds ferry in Edmonds, Washington on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)

Earlier this month, the federal government also granted Washington $4.8 million to upgrade old vessels as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill.

The ferry system also rolled out a scholarship program this year to offer low-cost training for those interested in working there. The ferry system’s COVID-19 Service Restoration Plan suggests hiring a consultant to find ways to improve employee retention.

“There’s been years of under funding,” Sterling said. “It took us a while to get here. And it’ll take a while to get out.”

Sterling understands why tensions are high, but said most people have altered their commutes at this point, or learned to live with delays.

Kenton Jones, the chair of the Edmonds Ferry Advisory Committee, said he understands the frustration, too. But he thinks the system is doing the best it can with its resources. And most passengers seem to get that, he said. They bring a book, homework or something to do in line.

“You can’t build a boat overnight,” Jones said. “They’re working on it, and I’m really proud of them. It’s not the sort of thing that’s going to get cured tomorrow.”

WSF staffing needs as of fall 2023

Licensed deck staff: 178 captains and mates. Target staffing is 200.

Licensed engine employees: 182 chief and assistant engineers. The target is 200.

Unlicensed deck staff: 512 employees. The target is 546.

Ashley Nash: 425-339-3037; ashley.nash@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @ash_nash00.

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