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State ferries: Grading 2017 and tackling 2018 | Guest View


Last updated 2/18/2018 at Noon

This is a condensed version of the Washington State Ferries’ year in review by Amy Scarton, assistant secretary, WSDOT/Ferries Division.

As I wrap up my first year at the helm of Washington State Ferries, I want to take a moment to reflect on our accomplishments in 2017 and map a course for the tasks we will tackle in the next year.

Last year, we carried 24.5 million riders, the highest ridership in 15 years. We are not only growing, we are reliable. Because of the dedicated employees who work on our vessels, in our terminals, and in the office dispatching crews at all hours of the day and night, we completed 99.45 percent of sailings in 2017.

2017 major accomplishments

New ferries

The third Olympic Class vessel, Chimacum, entered service last summer on the Seattle/Bremerton route. More than 1,800 guests joined us at the Bremerton ferry terminal in June to celebrate Chimacum’s completion. The Suquamish is 80 percent complete and is scheduled to enter service next fall.

Construction begins on two major terminal projects

This year we started construction on our two biggest terminal projects. Construction on the Seattle Ferry Terminal at Colman Dock began in August, and is expected to last approximately five years.

The project will remove over 7,400 tons of deteriorating creosote-treated timber piles from Elliott Bay and replace them with seismically sound new concrete pilings and a steel trestle.

It includes a new terminal building and a new passenger only facility. The ferry terminal, which serves over nine million customers per year, will remain open without any reductions to service throughout construction.

Construction of the new Mukilteo terminal is also well underway and we expect it to open in 2019. It will include a new passenger and maintenance building, a supervisor’s building, transit center and four new tollbooths.

The terminal’s location near the Sounder commuter rail station improves transit connections and it includes a larger holding area for vehicles.

As part of WSF’s partnership with the region’s tribes, the terminal will be built to respect the historical significance of the site, including an environmentally friendly design and cultural design features submitted by members of the Tulalip and Suquamish tribes.

Vessel safety improvements

We’ve worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to provide 100 percent life-rafting on all vessels. After several years of being allowed “alternative compliance” by relying on vessels in close proximity with each other to provide assistance in case of emergency, this year the Coast Guard has mandated each of our Jumbo Mark II, Jumbo, Issaquah, and Super class vessels have 100 percent life-rafting capacity.

The Coast Guard is allowing us to install the new rafts during regularly scheduled maintenance, over the course of the next three years, allowing us to minimize service disruptions.

Safety management

We’ve streamlined our internal Safety Management System (SMS), to reduce the number of accounts and the number of printed manuals to minimize printing costs, and make safety documents more easily accessible. This is part of an overall effort to simplify procedures and reduce redundancy across the agency.

Customer service

WSF information agents responded to approximately 139,000 phone calls in 2017. They handled more than 85,700 vehicle reservations for customers over the phone. We also share information quickly and transparently on our Twitter account @wsferries. Our account routinely tops 1.5 million impressions each month.

Concessions revenue increases

Total concessions revenues across all categories increased five percent from FY 2016 to FY 2017. Onboard concessions revenue increased 11 percent, and our vendor, Centerplate, is constantly adding local and sustainable products to provide better food and beverage options for ferry riders.

What’s ahead in 2018

Investing in people

Our workforce is the backbone of the ferry system. Approximately 25 percent of WSF’s employees are eligible to retire in the next five years. Many of them are highly skilled and credentialed crew members, tradespeople, and vessel engineers with a long career path to reach their current positions.

Currently, 55 percent of our deck crews and 62 percent of our captains are over age 54, and 55 percent of our engine room crews and Eagle Harbor maintenance staff are over 50.

We are focusing on ways to help new employees entering the organization see future possibilities and to develop long-term interest in a WSF maritime career. We will continue our partnership with Seattle Maritime Academy (Seattle Central College) to provide training opportunities on a joint deck and engine simulator and maintain our intern program, providing a local pipeline of future licensed employees. We are also forging new partnerships with institutions such as Perry Technical Institute in Yakima.

Vessel maintenance needs and summer service expectations

WSF transports 50 percent more people in summer than we do in winter, with only 18 percent more service hours. During these busy months, we are unable to increase the number of boats we own, the size of our terminal space, or the availability of our crews proportionally.

This puts pressure on the entire ferry system, as customers wait longer, crews work longer hours, and maintenance crews have fewer hours available to access vessels and equipment.

We have 22 vessels in service, and 19 of those are necessary for maintaining our summer schedule. To meet vessel maintenance needs, two vessels are usually scheduled for summer work that includes preventative maintenance or painting.

That leaves us with one legislatively funded service relief vessel to handle whatever the summer season throws at us. The governor’s budget for the rest of the 2017-19 biennium also includes money to keep the Hyak in service to minimize disruptions while other vessels go in for work.

We are planning now for next summer’s seasonal spikes in ridership and the maintenance needs of our vessels that operate up to 20 hours a day, 365 days a year. We are reviewing schedules for several routes and will be updating our summer service contingency plan that outlines how we handle unexpected service disruptions and vessel maintenance needs.

2040 long-range plan

Systemwide, ridership is projected to grow 30 percent in the next 20 years and we need to plan for how we will accommodate this growth.

The completed plan will provide a blueprint for new vessel needs, service scenarios, ridership forecasts, and the agency’s sustainability efforts. The development of the plan includes a broad public involvement process and the engagement of numerous partners, including ferry riders, community interest groups, transit agencies, elected officials, and ferry advisory committees.

Hybrid electric ferries

In January, Gov. Inslee signed Executive Order 18-01, which directs state agencies to improve the efficiency of state government operations and reduce spending on energy. It specifically directs WSDOT to begin the transition to a zero-carbon-emission state ferry fleet.

WSF is exploring how hybrid electric technology could be used to power ferries to reduce our carbon footprint and lower fuel costs. This is all part of our effort to make Washington’s ferry system the greenest in the world.

Pending available funding, we will be looking at converting our three largest ferries, the Jumbo Mark II class, to hybrid electric propulsion by reviewing capital costs, potential capital and operating savings, construction schedules and other considerations, such as shore power charging infrastructure and connections to our terminals.


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