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The Impact – New Head of WA State Ferries Talks Strategies for Overcoming Staffing & Vessel Limitations

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

Washington’s ferry system is charting a course through rough waters. Although the Washington State Department of Transportation reports service has been restored to pre-pandemic levels between most destinations, the reduced number of sailings on three routes pose significant ongoing challenges for island communities. Frequent delays and cancellations are often attributed to staff shortages or mechanical problems. It will reportedly take 26 vessels to fully restore reliable service with back-up boats as others go in for maintenance. According to the agency, there are currently 21 vessels in the ferry fleet, but only around 15 are in use on a regular basis. Some are in need of repairs, and each will need to be taken out of service at some point to comply with the state’s goal of electrifying the fleet. The first new electric ferry was initially expected to enter service in 2024, but now isn’t expected until at least 2028 after a preliminary deal with the shipbuilder reportedly fell apart when the company was sold.  

Some of Washington’s island communities have coordinated campaigns to highlight the challenges facing ferry dependent residents from service cuts and disruptions. In a November 2023 report, Islanders for Ferry Action organized by the Vashon Island Chamber of Commerce lists problems such as:

  • emergency service delays 
  • tourists avoiding the island for fear of missing flights 
  • children stranded on docks, students delayed getting to school 
  • delays for patients trying to reach the mainland for treatment  
  • small businesses struggling to survive
  • and commuters waiting hours in line daily.  

“Last summer with the inconsistencies and canceled sailings a lot of people who would come over for a day trip or longer decided that Vashon was a little more of a problem to get to than they were willing to take so, the visitor ratio certainly went down. It also impacted employees and people getting on and off the island.  What we noticed is a lot of last-minute cancellations, a lot of frustrated clients who decided that, you know, they could go to other locations with less of a transportation concern and recreate elsewhere, which was a big impact on our business,” said Erin Kieper of Vashon Adventures.

Recently, Washington State Ferries got a new boss. We traveled to the WSDOT Eagle Harbor shipyard on Bainbridge Island to sit down with Assistant Secretary Steve Nevey, find out how he plans to improve the system, and how long he expects it to take. 

“We just hired a strategic advisory committee for our electrification program of industry experts. that have private industry experience on shipbuilding. You know, you a quick Google search will tell you that the Navy’s having a big problem building vessels. So we’ve asked them to look at our approach and recommend innovative, out-of-the-box, creative ways of building vessels that might help us be quicker,” said Nevey. “And I’ve talked to legislators and said, these guys, these folks might come up with creative solutions, but they might not be to current, you know, rules and regulations. We might need to come to you and talk about exceptions and, and creative ways to get this done using private sector experience. And I know they’re open to that.”