State ferries leader gets high marks after 11 months at helm

OLYMPIA — Lynne Griffith had no designs on running Washington State Ferries.

Now, the 65-year-old Tacoma resident can’t imagine leaving.

“I’m having a ball,” she said this week as she reflected on 11 months at the helm of the fleet of vessels that is one of the state’s most recognized icons. “It is a wonderful, fascinating transportation mode. This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”

And her impassioned leadership is lifting the spirits of Washington State Ferries’ employees beaten down by years of internal conflict and stinging public rebukes.

“She is really doing a great job,” said Capt. Tim Saffle, regional representative of the International Order of Masters, Mates and Pilots Association. “She’s listening to the employees. The morale in the ferry system is way up.”

But boats continue to break down. Fares are going to rise again this fall. And travelers on the Mukilteo-Clinton route can expect annoying delays for the foreseeable future because of scheduling issues.

Griffith said she’s counting on a rejuvenated work force helping her confront the challenges more productively.

“I’m on a mission,” she said. “My job, I felt, was to stabilize the organization and … make the ferry system not be a thorn in anybody’s side.”

Critics of the agency are complimenting Griffith’s performance thus far.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who sparred often with former ferries chief David Moseley, is getting along smoothly with Griffith.

“We have a thoughtful leader who is really paying attention to what the public, the employees and the legislators are saying and responding in large measure responsibly,” she said. “I’m grateful for that. It’s still early. We’ll just have to see what the fruit of that leadership is.”

Coming aboard

In the spring of 2014 Griffith had decided to retire at the end of year from her job as chief executive officer of Pierce Transit. So when Washington’s Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson invited her to apply for the open ferries position she politely declined.

While she was “really, extremely intrigued with the job,” Griffith decided to pass. “I told Secretary Peterson that she needed someone for the long haul,” she said.

Peterson didn’t wind up hiring anyone in that search. She had one finalist, former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, and didn’t pick him.

She started a second round of searching and reached out to Griffith again — and this time Griffith applied.

The ferry system’s handling of two high-profile incidents cemented her change of heart. One was the ferry Tacoma losing power during a run in July 2014. The other came in August of that year when a boat packed with fans heading to a Seattle Seahawks pre-season game was turned around when it was mistakenly thought to be overloaded.

“I saw they had serious operational issues,” said Griffith, a 36-year veteran of the transportation industry. “My goal was to come on board and stabilize the situation. That’s what I do.”

She’s doing it in a way that isn’t drawing much attention to her, let alone the agency.

“I get the impression that she’s not here to drive an agenda, she’s here to drive boats to their destination on time,” said state Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, who is vice-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Griffith, who earns $144,768 a year, is the agency’s first woman leader. And this is her first foray into managing a marine transportation agency, let alone the largest ferry system in the United States carrying more than 23 million people a year.

She inherited an agency that had endured years of bad publicity about its fleet.

In 2007, just before Thanksgiving, the Steel Electric class vessels were pulled from service amid mounting concerns over cracks, leaks and corrosion in their 80-year-old hulls.

Then there were problems with the boats built to replace them.

A state audit asserted the state overpaid for the Chetzemoka, one of three 64-car vessels built to serve the Mukilteo-Clinton and the Port Townsend-Coupeville routes. And state lawmakers, led by Smith, forced ferry officials to make a fix so those vessels would no longer list while docked and empty.

When the Tokitae was launched in July 2014, Smith and other lawmakers demanded that repairs be made on that vessel, too, to prevent the bottoms of cars from scraping the ramp leading to the upper parking deck.

In its first month on the water, the new boat was sidelined for unexpected repairs. It wasn’t long before riders and workers took to calling it the “Broke-itae.”

Griffith sensed these events fed a public perception of widespread incompetence at Washington State Ferries. And, to that point, the agency had not done a good job responding.

“We have to own that,” she said. “I think our organization was hiding. I think they had hunkered down. If we messed up I’m going to own it and move forward.”

Marching orders

Meanwhile, on the same day Peterson announced Griffith’s hiring, the transportation secretary sent Gov. Jay Inslee a 10-page memo pledging the two women would act to curb missed sailings due to lack of available crew and cancellations resulting from equipment or mechanical failure.

To deal with those, Griffith needed to begin changing the culture of the agency.

She said she found a highly-trained work force and committed managers, but they were too often at odds and pulling the agency in different directions.

She shook things up. In January, she reorganized to begin bringing her own team, a move that caused several senior employees to depart.

Griffith also set about mending ties between employees and those in charge.

She did little things. She involved workers in decision-making and restarted a practice of the agency paying for workers to get training necessary for promotions. When that stopped, fewer workers sought advancement.

“That just lifted everyone’s spirits big time,” she said.

She and Peterson completed the multi-day training for new hires as able-bodied seaman — which surprised workers.

“The employees had never had the head of the ferry system do that,” said Capt. Saffle. “That earned them a tremendous amount of respect.”

Griffith, a grandmother, called working on the deck and docks “a cool job. Wish I found it when I was younger.”

Scheduling woes

As Griffith reaches her first-year anniversary, there are problems in need of solutions.

One deals with travel on the Mukilteo-Clinton route.

It is one of the state’s busiest routes, especially in summer, and customers count on the Tokitae and Kittitas sailing every 30 minutes. But at peak times, the Tokitae sometimes departs a couple minutes late. Griffith said she spent three hours on board the vessel one day to get a first-hand experience.

“It’s not the Tokitae’s fault. That’s the schedule’s fault,” she said. “If (the boat) leaves full, it leaves late.”

The Tokitae carries 20 more vehicles than its predecessor on the route and thus takes longer to load. The schedule, however, has not been modified to accommodate this change.

Griffith said the schedule can be adjusted to add time but that would mean fewer sailings a day. Or the current schedule can be maintained but that may mean some runs being made before the car decks are full.

Griffith said ferry officials are trying to figure out a solution, though it’s unlikely any schedule change will occur this year.

In the meantime, the age of many vessels in the fleet may pose the most difficult long-term challenge.

Several of the 24 boats are a half-century old, Griffith said. They are greater risk of breaking down and requiring potentially costly repairs. Maintenance workers are performing miracles to keep them running, she said.

But she knows that even one missed sailing affects hundreds of people and the system’s reputation.

“Some people count sheep at night. I count ferry vessels,” she said. “When I get up in the morning I want to know if they are all there. Ferries are so predictable and reliable that when a glitch does happen it’s a big deal.”

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

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