By COOPER INVEEN
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
OLYMPIA — Washington’s new ferries chief, Lynne Griffith, is plunging into reforms that aim to set the state’s troubled ferry system on the right course.
In making her debut comments to the Legislature last week, Griffith called America’s largest ferry system “a marine culture that is rich with history and tradition,” but critically in need of changes and strong legislative support.
“I want to take the best parts of that culture and move forward in a new direction,” she told the House Transportation Committee on Jan. 12. Griffith included labor, maintenance and funding gaps as issues that need immediate attention. And key lawmakers seem to agree.
“She’s restructuring upper management and encouraging senior staff to make decisions,” said Lars Erickson, communications director at the Department of Transportation. “With that empowerment comes a higher level of accountability, and I think that’s something that taxpayers, customers and employees are really looking for.”
Griffith had no maritime experience prior to signing on with Washington State Ferries, but her many years heading Pierce Transit and Vancouver’s C-TRAN gives transportation officials confidence she’s up for the challenge.
“I think she’s going to make a lot of really positive changes,” said House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “I think her attitude and demeanor is calming some of the chaos of everyone running around trying to get things done. You need to have a calm hand, and we didn’t have a very calm hand during the crossover.”
The “crossover” Clibborn is referring to was the time in between former director David Moseley’s retirement in April and Griffith’s appointment. During those five months, WSF was headed by interim director Capt. George Capacci, whose managerial tactics were called into question following a series of cancelled departures and labor conflicts, as well as a complete electrical failure aboard the Tacoma vessel last July.
Capacci was considered a top contender for the permanent ferries chief position. However, after members of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots wrote state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson claiming Capacci pushed an “anti-labor agenda” that harmed morale, Capacci withdrew himself from consideration. The letter urged Peterson hire former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg instead, although he was eventually rejected as well.
One of Griffith’s first moves as the new ferries chief was to create seven new management positions while requiring four senior staffers to reapply for their positions. Capacci’s current job — the deputy chief of operations and construction — is being eliminated.
“The new WSF management structure allows us to be leaner and flatter,” Griffith said via email. “The transformation of the leadership does eliminate two deputy chief positions, but Captain Capacci is welcome to apply for any of the new management positions.”
With around 56 percent of deck, maintenance and masters staff being over the age of 55, Griffith wants to begin training as many new employees as possible to fill the spots retirees are leaving behind.
Making sure new employees are properly trained is of the utmost importance, the ferries chief noted. Coast Guard regulations require that a ferry refrain from launching if the specified number of staff is not on board. If someone doesn’t show up and no replacement is found, the trip is cancelled.
One of the main issues with having such a diverse fleet is that a single worker may only be trained to work on a certain type of ferry. With a new Olympic-class vessel already on the water — and two more to follow in the next two years — at least three other older boats are being replaced, and the types of vessels ferry workers are expected to operate become more consistent.
Even new ships require occasional maintenance. Other than weather problems, pulling ferries out of circulation to undergo work and inspections is the largest cause of missed sailings. Griffith attributes this to not having replacement vessels to fill the void.
One solution would be to add a fourth Olympic-class boat to the fleet, since the other three are replacing older boats expected to be retired soon. Those three ships the Olympic vessels replace would turn 60 within the next 10 years.
With the ferry system struggling to acquire the funds to get maintenance and construction projects up and running, its success depends on finding a new revenue stream. The state Senate is currently negotiating a transportation package said to include significant increases to ferry funding, and Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal includes a large transportation boost.
“The decision this year will be whether to build a fourth 144-car ferry, because we have a third going onto the line now. And if you never shut down the building line, you actually get a better price per-ferry,” Clibborn said. “So that decision will be made this year, either through the new budget or a revenue package, but it will need that new revenue stream.”
The governor’s transportation budget would allocate $890 million to ferry and terminal maintenance, as well as an additional $86 million to replace the terminal buildings at Coleman Dock and Mukilteo. Both buildings are considered particularly vulnerable to seismic activity.
Another $86 million would also be included if the state decides to construct a fourth Olympic class vessel.
Revenue for these budget projections would have to come from somewhere, and with the governor’s budget also including a freeze on ferry fares, that source is unlikely to come from within WSF. Inslee is proposing a carbon-emissions tax to help fill the void, but whether a tax increase would pass the Republican-controlled senate remains uncertain.
“If you’re raising taxes to pay for education, will you be able to raise the gas tax to pay for transportation that same session?” Clibborn asked. “I’m rooting for both, but what might happen is one could be held hostage to the other as part of the politics. I think we have the capacity to do it; I just don’t know if we have the political will.”
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Six fun facts about Washington State Ferries
1. Washington’s ferry system is not only the largest in the country, but it’s also the largest vehicle ferry system on Earth: more than 10 million vehicles carried per year.
2. The ferries are Washington’s single largest tourist attraction.
3. Washington’s ferries are the single largest state contributor to carbon emissions, but an eventual conversion from diesel to liquified natural gas aims to change that.
4. Washington ferries boast a 99.5 percent reliability rating. Only one in every 200 voyages is delayed or cancelled.
5. The largest vehicles in the fleet can carry up to 2,500 people and 202 vehicles.
6. There are more than 400 Washington ferry departures per day.
Want to learn more? Check out ferry plans, publications and statistics at WSDOT’s website.
— Cooper Inveen, WNPA Olympia News Bureau