Washington State Ferries continues to operate through a global pandemic

Washington State Ferries is not immune to COVID-19, according to Amy Scarton. WSF staff held a public virtual meeting on June 30 to update ferry-served communities on the status of the state transportation agency.

“The last few months, we — in our communities, across our state, our nation, the world — we’ve really seen unprecedented challenges and the situation continues to change rapidly. … Here at Washington State Ferries, we are not immune to COVID.” Scarton, who is the head of WSF, said. “In fact, as countless others have done — many, like you in your homes with your family and your own work, you’ve had to adjust your way of doing business — we’ve had impacts to our service, to our vessels, to our maintenance and preservation projects, our construction, to the ways we’re able to communicate with you, like today. But through it all, our ferry workers have been on the frontline working continuously so that customers can travel safely for their important work, medical appointments and essential trips.”

According to Scarton, more than 150 WSF employees are out on leave due to being at high risk of developing serious complications from the coronavirus pandemic. She added that earlier this year, a WSF employee died because of COVID-19.

“We are making system-wide changes,” Scarton said. “But they are all aimed at the goal of keeping our employees safe, keeping our customers safe and keeping some level of service available for our marine highways.”

Four considerations go into deciding whether WSF can resume its normal schedule or if it must continue at reduced operations: ridership; functioning vessels; crew availability; and finances.

WSF created a COVID Response Service Plan that addresses the four conditions that need to be met in order to resume service. View the plan at https://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Ferries/assets/WSF-COVIDResponseServicePlan.pdf.

According to Scarton, ridership hit its lowest levels since the 1950s. She said they were more than 75 percent below those of the same time last year. Systemwide, she added, the numbers are still more than 50 percent below those of last year’s.

“We have seen, just recently, a slight uptick in some of the ferry served communities,” Scarton said. “A typical year, our system is carrying a lot more traffic in early June than we usually carry in January.”

During the summer months, 19 vessels are needed to run the normal schedule, Scarton explained, currently, only 14 are in service.

“The number of boats that we have directly dictates our ability to provide service,” Scarton said.

Typically, the winter provides time for the Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility to perform maintenance on the vessels. However, during the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order that Gov. Jay Inslee began in late March, the facility was closed.

“What that left us with was no ability to perform that important yearly maintenance in that normal period we would do it, in the winter,” Scarton said.

Additionally, the United States Coast Guard stopped performing in-person inspections, Scarton said. Because of these two restrictions earlier this year, a total of five vessels are currently unable to sail, she added.

Eagle Harbor has since reopened and is working on the backlog of vessels, Scarton explained.

“They’re doing a fantastic job over there trying to get to the backlog,” Scarton said. “We simply cannot increase service without those vessels.”

Crew availability is another component necessary for resuming normal operations. With a number out due to being high-risk for COVID complications and some crew even being diagnosed with the disease, a boat cannot run without sufficient crew, which greatly affects the ability to operate regularly.

“We have a number of our crew numbers… who have tested positive, who were family members or coworkers of individuals who elsewhere had tested positive,” Scarton said. “They have been following protocols to self isolate and perform COVID testing and to not come back to work until those test results are negative or until they have finished their quarantine period as prescribed by health professionals.”

According to Scarton, before anyone can become a crew member aboard a WSF vessel, they must go through weeks of intensive training. That training typically is hired in winter, trained in spring and deployed in summer. The pandemic threw a wrench in that plan, causing approximately 60 new crew members to not be prepared for peak season.

Scarton said that those new employees are training online now or performing telework for the time being but that “greatly affects” the crew availability. Right now, she explained, classes which usually consists of 20 people are reduced to only five, but the agency is working to train new employees as thoroughly and quickly as it can.

“That is difficult in the era of COVID,” Scarton said. “It takes a lot of new ways of doing business.”

When ridership drops, so does the income WSF gets from those riders via the fares.

“We cannot increase our level of service, obviously, without the funding to pay for it,” Scarton said. “About 75 percent of our operating budget comes from those of you buying tickets. The other portion comes from some state and federal revenues, so rich now, with our ridership being so far down, our ticket revenue is down.”

Across the board, Scarton explained, Washington State Department of Transportation is looking at a $1.3 billion revenue loss due to the lack of travel during the stay at home orders.

“Why? People aren’t paying ferry fares, they’re not paying gas taxes, they’re not riding on the toll roads,” Scarton said.

Additionally, Initiative 976, which reduced the state’s tab fees to $30 per car, resulted in a revenue loss of $660 million over the next three years, Scarton explained. However, until Legislature resumes and WSF is directed by it and Inslee to make budget cuts, WSF will continue to operate, she noted. According to state law, only Legislature can permanently eliminate a ferry route.

“All of you folks are going to help us make decisions about the ferry system of the future,” Scarton said. “It will be extremely challenging for communities that rely on tourism that are hoping visitors return. … We’re not immune to COVID and I don’t know what type of new normal we will have but we are not reducing service now because of a choice. It is, we have no other option, without the vessels, without the crew, without the funding.”

As COVID continues to spike around the state, Scarton said that WSF may be forced to make additional service adjustments due to a lack of crew or vessels. Many WSF employees are on furlough, she explained, including herself, the Chief of Staff and all directors.

“Every state agency is furloughing now throughout the month of July, so folks, bear with us,” Scarton said. “We may not be able to be as responsive in the month of July, but, you know, those of us, we’re not just cutting our days at work, we’re taking a pay cut and many there are many folks who will feel the pain from that.”

Scarton took a moment to recognize another social issue that has returned to the forefront amid the pandemic — that of systemic racism and the killing of Black Americans. She said that WSF reinstated its Inclusion and Diversity committee.

“It’s a difficult time. I hope you’re well and I really want to hear from you and what can we do now? We can continue to ask each other to practice kindness, to follow the rules,” Scarton said.

Stephanie Cirkovich, WSF Director of Community Services and Planning, stressed the importance of only traveling when it is essential. She noted, however, it isn’t the WSF ticket booth workers’ job to monitor whether a person is traveling for essential purposes or not.

“We are still in the middle of the pandemic and travel should be limited and so we really kind of rely on our customers to police themselves a bit,” Cirkovich said. “I don’t think it’s our role as an agency to question people about where they’re going or what they’re doing, but we really kind of depend on all of you to do your part in that.”

To help protect riders from contracting COVID-19, staff thoroughly cleans the passenger area between sailings, WSF Director of Marine Operations Greg Faust said. This cleaning and continuing to operate on a tight winter schedule has contributed to delays seen in the San Juan Islands, he added.

“All those things just add a little bit of time each time and there’s really not a lot of dwell time,” Faust said.

“[The San Juan route] is our most complicated route in our system because we have so many destinations we serve just out of Anacortes,” Scarton added.

At the end of the meeting, Scarton reiterated that the service WSF provides can only increase when four circumstances have been met: when ridership improves; when all vessels are able to operate; when substantial staff is available; and when finances permit.

Summarize the future of returning to service:

“When we have all four of the things aligned — and it’s not a date, it is when we have more vessels, more employees, more ridership and more funding — that’s when we can increase service,” Scarton said.