Seattle-Bremerton ferry service restoration delayed again

Adding to unhappiness is WSF increase in rates

Sailing cancellations, constant delays and lacking numbers in vessels and staff are just some of the setbacks Washington State Ferries has experienced in the past few months and are becoming too commonplace in the eyes of many Bremerton ferry riders.

Now the agency says it is once again pushing back fully restoring its route between Bremerton and Seattle into 2024, adding to the anger and confusion felt by Bremerton officials and residents alike.

The newest setback was announced as a part of the agency’s route-specific virtual meeting June 6 in which ferry riders and the public were allowed to have questions answered by higher-ups in the WSF staff.

WSF director of government relations John Vezina was the one to bring up the update to a virtual crowd overwhelmingly made up of Bremerton ferry riders (88% according to a Zoom poll). He reported that the trial runs for the Fauntleroy, Vashon and Southworth triangle routes were experiencing further delays.

“In February, we thought we would have the crewing back and available to restore your route in September,” he said. “It was still two years, and two years too long.”

But WSF realizes now that it won’t have another licensed deck officer class until fall, so there aren’t enough people qualified to start the route yet. “We don’t think we’ll be able to trial service on the triangle route until the winter season in January.”

That pushes back the timeline to restore Bremerton’s route as it is below the triangle route in terms of priority. As to why the route has continued to be prioritized to a lesser extent, Vezina said it’s a close call between the two routes and it continues to be evaluated. However, he said the edge still belongs to the triangle route.

“I don’t want to understate your need, but because they’re an island community, because of the significant delays there as well, we believe that it is, as of now, the right call to trial the triangle service before we do Seattle-Bremerton,” Vezina said.

Bremerton City Council president Jeff Coughlin was quick to express disappointment. He also added his thoughts concerning the pending fare increases of around 4%, saying he was “frustrated that reduced fares for Bremerton to compensate for reduced service are not being considered as an option.”

Members of the Bremerton Ferry Coalition Facebook page also commented in live time during the meeting in its own message board. Frustrated by the limited routes via car and boat to reach Seattle and the most convenient routes requiring payment, Bremerton resident and page administrator Elissa Torgeson said, “Someone should point out that we are basically an island.”

Another ferry rider, Jackson Pincus, said, “What a ******* insult to Bremerton. If this comes to pass and isn’t delayed anymore, it will be two years after Bainbridge’s full service was restored that we get ours back. If you’re a Bremerton resident and not infuriated, you should be.”

The news comes as the Walla Walla ferry has once again been taken out of service for repairs just weeks following the ship’s return and a month-and-a-half following its grounding near Bainbridge Island. The ship was removed from service after Vezina said the ship’s crew noticed “similar issues that caused its grounding.”

The Walla Walla’s uncertain future puts additional strain on a ferry system that has three of its vessels approaching retirement in the next five or so years. The Tillikum is approaching scheduled retirement this year, followed by the Kaleetan in 2026 and the Yakima in 2027, WSF assistant secretary Patty Rubstello said.

She added, “We are still short a number of employees we need to operate full, reliable service, especially the licensed deck officers, which take many years to develop and train.”

Graphics provided by WSF indicate that for the agency to be at targeted staffing levels, it would need to hire around 25-30 more licensed deck officers. That number is expected to grow as more current staff becomes eligible for retirement.

Even so, Rubstello does not feel that WSF dropped the ball on restoring service. “Could we have done better on messaging our problems? I don’t know, but we are where we’re at, and we’re grateful that the legislature stepped up with the needed resources,” she said. Lawmakers this last session provided large funding for WSF after years of neglect.

Vezina offered his apologies for the long stint of one-boat service for the Bremerton route has remained subject to, saying. “We know it’s not acceptable, but it’s the reality of the resources we have.”