On Jan. 17 and 18, Washington State Ferries (WSF) held a biannual meeting via Zoom to share service-wide updates and an overview of the recently released Service Contingency Plan, as well held an extensive Q and A session with viewers. Around 200 participants attended the Jan.17 meeting, with the majority of participants (24 percent) attending as primary Anacortes/San Juan Islands passengers.
When introducing the Service Contingency Plan, John Vezira, WSF Director of Planning, Customer and Government Relations, mentioned how the Service Restoration Plans released in 2022 and 2023 were not able to meet the outlined goals for restoration of service, leading to the creation of the contingency plan.
“We felt that the public deserved to understand in the meantime until we can restore service, how would we provide it and at what level,” said Vezira.
Vezira outlined the goals for the contingency plan, which included providing predictability and consistency for WSF service for the next four to five years, as well improving transparency and communication. He then addressed the two main constraints: vessels and crewing. Currently, WSF has 21 vessels, compared to 24 vessels in 2015. Additionally, one different vessel will be out of service for the next three years to receive mid-life propulsion maintenance and hybrid conversion, further reducing the fleet to 20 vessels. Due to the reduction and aging of the fleet, Vezira stated there are essentially no spare vessels to operate the pre-pandemic standard of 19 boats for the summer, 18 for the fall and spring, and 17 for the winter.
With new legislation changing the way vessels are procured, WSF is planning to put out a bid in April for the in-state construction of a new vessel, and Vezira hopes that because they own the design of the boat and are allowed to work with out-of-state manufacturers, there is a possibility to have more than one vessel built at a time. Regardless, WSF is on track to receive a new vessel in early 2028. In the meantime, the contingency plan outlines a baseline of 15 vessels and how they are distributed amongst the different ferry routes. The Anacortes/San Juan Island route is allotted the same 4 vessels, including one inter-island only vessel, as they would be for a 19 vessel fleet.
As for crewing, there are several facets to the labor shortage issue. By 2027, 80 captains and 60 chief engineers will become retirement eligible. However, these higher level positions are much harder to replace, as it can take several years for an entry-level crew member to follow the pipeline to becoming a mate and then later a captain, which is illustrated by the poster found on https://wsdotblog.blogspot.com/2022/09/update-on-ferry-service-restoration.html.
“It’s not as simple as hiring a bunch of people in the OS entry-level position,” said Steve Nevey, WSF Director of Marine Operations. “It’s about trying to attract people in more experienced maritime roles…, or creating internal programs to move people we already have up through this process to get them where they need to be to balance out our workforce.”
Over the last 18 months, WSF has collaborated with the Governor to receive funding to develop internal programs that help experienced crew members, or Able-bodied sailors (AB) get the necessary credentials to move through the ranks. Thanks to this type of program, called an AB to mate program, there will be 24 new licensed deck officers this spring, in comparison to the previous average of four to six new mates per year. Additionally, the funding has allowed for the cost of AB to mate training to be paid up front rather than post-program reimbursement to the employee, further incentivizing employees to be trained.
WSF has also received funding for the Maritime Apprenticeship Program (MAP), which targets high school graduates, fully funding their attendance to a maritime academy and producing licensed deck officers after three years. Currently, 12 students are set to enter the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies (MITGAS) in February as part of this program.
“We’re working to make this a permanent program,” said Nevey. “We really see this as our long-term strategy for developing captains.”
As for addressing engineer shortages, WSF is now allowed to bring in new entry level employees called wipers, who require no prior experience. Previously, oilers were hired as entry level employees on the engineer pipeline, but oilers require previous experience and had to be sourced elsewhere in the maritime industry. So, rather than tracking oilers elsewhere, WSF has focused on hiring wipers and created an oiler internship program, in addition to sponsoring license prep courses for more advanced engineers to move through the ranks as well.
In terms of the budget, WSF Director of Finance and Administration Todd Lamphere reviewed the 2024 Supplemental Budget that was released by Governor Inslee in December, which provides additional funding and corrections to the bi-annual budget. The current Ferry Operations Budget saw a seven percent increase ($49M) from $740M to $789M, which goes towards staffing operations, such as the previously mentioned training programs, as well as fuel. The Ferry Capital Budget expects a 25 percent increase ($133M) from $533M to $666M, and covers construction and preservation efforts like terminals and vessels.
“Some highlights in this budget include four areas: improving reliability of the service, support for electrification, improving resilience of the system, and some forward-thinking solutions,” said Lamphere.
In addition to the bid proposal for the new ferry being issued in April, which already has nine potential bidders according to WSF Director of Terminal Engineering David Sowers, Sowers gave additional electrification updates. Wenatchee is currently having its two diesel motors replaced with batteries and electrical systems, and when it returns to the fleet at the end of 2024, Tacoma will take its place and undergo the same conversion.
“Of course, they can’t operate fully in electrified mode without electrifying terminals,” said Sowers.
Last year, a consultant was hired to help design and develop shore side electrification, and Sowers’ team submitted a request for information on vessel charging systems, which connects vessels to the shore.
After about an hour of presenting, the WSF panel opened the floor to an hour-long Q and A session, in which a variety of questions and concerns were presented, such as incentives and schedule improvements for crew members, the delayed start in vessel manufacturing, suspension of the 90 day expiration period for ferry passes, and many more.
When asked if WSF has considered alternatives to restore the Anacortes/Friday Harbor/Sidney route sooner than the 2030 prediction, Vezira stated that their main priority is to first restore the three domestic routes whose number of vessels were reduced as part of the 15-vessel contingency plan.
“It’s tough. It’s a big tourism route and a driver of revenue for Anacortes and Friday Harbor. But at the same time, we don’t think we can delay the restoration of domestic service for people trying to get to doctor’s appointments and going back and forth between work to do a mostly visitor route,” said Vezira.
After conducting a study on available vessels that could restore the Sidney route, WSF found no available domestic ferries, and the accessible foreign ferries would likely need significanwt retrofitting and shipyard capacity that would take resources away from their top priority of restoring domestic routes.
Another point of controversy was the WSF data on reliability. At the beginning of the presentation, Deputy Assistant Secretary Nicole McIntosh listed a series of accomplishments achieved by WSF in 2023, including a 97.7% trip reliability. When attendees questioned the accuracy of this statistic, Vezira explained that “reliability” is when a boat sails, even if it was severely delayed, it is considered reliable sailing, and that “on-time-performance” is tracked separately. Both can be found at https://wsdot.wa.gov/about/data/multimodal-mobility-dashboard/dashboard/WSF/ontime-reliability.htm. Vezira alluded towards possible conversations reevaluating the language used to present data on WSF sailings to prevent confusion.
For those who were unable to attend the meetings on Jan. 17 or 18, recordings of the meetings can be accessed at https://wsdot.wa.gov/travel/washington-state-ferries/about-us/community-participation.