By The Herald Editorial Board
With the arrival of summer just a little more than a month away, many of us are day-dreaming about travel, from day trips to longer vacations; that is until we consider the cost of filling up the gas tank or booking a flight.
No problem, say thrifty Northwesterners who have long depended on more economical modes of travel, including Washington State Ferries, the poor man’s yacht; or Amtrak, the poor man’s Orient Express. But as transit systems and the other services and businesses work to book their return trips to Pre-Pandemic Normal, many passengers are finding they can’t always get where they got before covid.
Amtrak, earlier this week, announced that it would not be able to meet its earlier timetable to resume the Amtrak Cascades service from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. — and cities in between, namely Everett, Stanwood, Mount Vernon and Bellingham — in June as had been expected.
Amtrak service to Vancouver, sidetracked during the pandemic with the closure of the border, now — even as the border has reopened — is not expected to resume until December at the earliest, because the national passenger railway doesn’t have sufficient staff to resume service. You can book a ticket on Amtrak’s website from Everett Station for a trip to Seattle and points south or east, but you’ll be riding a bus or the daily Empire Builder, which itself is only now returning to its full seven-days-a-week schedule.
OK, then. Book a Washington State Ferries cruise from Anacortes via the San Juan Islands to Vancouver Island’s Sidney, B.C., for that Canadian getaway. Nope. Like Amtrak, that destination also remains unavailable this spring and summer and won’t return until 2023 at the earliest.
As with Amtrak, a lack of crew, along with vessel availability, have been blamed not only for the lack of service to Canada but a continuation of reduced service — some routes operating only one vessel when two was the pre-pandemic norm — on many popular cross-sound routes.
Full two-boat service was only restored on the Mukilteo-Clinton route last week, as were two ferries to the Seattle-Bainbridge Island run and to the Edmonds-Kingston route. Still operating on alternate schedules with reduced sailings are the Port Townsend-Coupeville and Seattle-Bremerton routes and service from Fauntleroy to Southworth and Vashon Island.
For once, it’s not state or national lawmakers’ faults for not passing transportation infrastructure spending, though earlier adoption would certainly have helped. Those packages — the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the state’s Move Ahead Washington plan — which passed in November and March, respectively, are done deals, with specific investments for Amtrak and Washington State Ferries moving out over coming years.
What’s keeping the trains and the ferries from not running on time — or where hoped — at the moment is a lack of trained crews.
“I don’t know of any transit system — ferry, airline or bus service — that wasn’t impacted by the pandemic, and we’re no different,” Dana Warr, deputy communications director for Washington State Ferries recently told public radio station KUOW’s “Soundside” magazine.
When transit agencies reduced scheduled service and laid off workers many of those employees didn’t wait around to return to their old jobs and instead found new jobs. That aspect of the great resignation has been compounded, Warr said, by a shortage of maritime workers and an aging workforce. About half of WSF’s employees, he said — captains, mates, engineers and deckhands — will be eligible for retirement in less than five years. And that shortage is worldwide. B.C. Ferries, for example, had to outright cancel routes, leading to food shortages on some of British Columbia’s more remote islands.
But hiring workers for ferries and passenger trains isn’t as simple as posting help-wanted ads.
To reopen the Cascades service between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., Amtrak needs three more conductors who need six to 12 months of training to advance from assistant conductor, an Amtrak spokesman told The Seattle Times.
Likewise, “the road back to fully staffed boats is not instant; you can’t just flip a light switch,” Danny Blanchard, Seattle Maritime Academy administrator and a vessel captain, told KUOW.
One source of trained and available workers — especially as employers face a continuing challenge to fill available positions during near record low unemployment levels — would be resumption of the nation’s past use of visas for foreign workers.
Work visas were severely limited during the Trump administration, and the Biden administration last year announced it was revoking Trump’s earlier executive order and lifting the ban on immigrant work visas. Yet the pandemic and a State Department backlog for processing three-year work visas has continued to squeeze the availability of trained foreign workers. As of this month, the State Department’s National Visa Center reported that since Biden’s order was issued it still had 421,136 eligible applicants waiting for an interview as of this month.
Training a local workforce, then, may be the quicker route.
Training and certification for maritime positions, in particular for a range of jobs with the state ferry system, can take about a year, Blanchard said, but the reward is a job that pays extremely well with good benefits.
That’s opportunity calling — with other skilled trades making the same call — for high school students nearing graduation and recent graduates still considering what’s next. This number should be familiar by now, but Washington state’s economy is expected to create some 373,000 new jobs in the next five years. But 70 percent of those jobs — offering family wages and good health coverage and retirement benefits — will require more than a high school diploma, such as a college degree, a post-secondary credential or an apprenticeship.
No one should be discouraged from pursuing the degrees and opportunities available at universities, but for those who don’t feel led to four years or more of education — and the debt that often comes with it — lucrative and fulfilling careers are available to those willing to invest their time in one to two years of education and training.
A career in transportation could get students where they want to go and where we want to go, too.