Support for WSF wanes as price rises, service declines | Ferry Fare

The state transportation funding cauldron continues to bubble.

The state transportation funding cauldron continues to bubble.

While we were marking time before the Senate Transportation Comm-ittee’s Seattle “listening session,” we spotted the co-chair, Senator King, pacing to and fro outside the building. Our reward for letting him in was an hour’s heart-to-heart on the situation.

In return for a new gas tax, Washington State Ferries has to vow not to raise fares and at least keep the current level of service. With record fare revenues, why also pay a gas tax if the fares are allowed to climb? Riders shell out for 70 percent of ferry operating costs; when WSDOT is asked for its 30 percent, it takes money from one pocket, puts it into another, whines “Pickpocket!,” and blusters about service cuts.

A transportation gas tax package has to do more than shovel money into the trough. Feeding a piranha doesn’t mean it’s going to go on a diet, and a requirement for state Department of Transportation reforms has been a senatorial rallying cry.

We pay twice what others in the world pay for new ferries. This means that: 1) we won’t be able to afford to replace all our old boats and 2) either we’re not letting the ship builders use their know-how for economical construction, or we’re subsidizing them to be non-competitive.

Competition is the best way to reduce costs. Unless there are least two independent Washington bids that are close to a fair market price, then bidding should go national. National bids would also qualify us for some of the federal funding that paid for 80 percent of Staten Island’s ferries. The State Auditor also spelled out a host of other contracting and project management reforms.

WSF’s costs per rider have swelled by 7 percent per year for the last decade, more than twice inflation. Diesel fuel at 27 percent of the total cost is market driven and WSF’s LNG initiative is the best move to reduce fuel cost. Maintenance, at 13 percent of the costs, can’t be reduced and still sustain reliability. Management and support costs are significantly down, at 15 percent of the total. They are not part of the problem.

Labor, at 46 percent the total cost, is the chief cost driver. The 2007 “Ferry Financing Study” laid out how to save many millions in labor costs. That report gathered dust until 2010 when King-5’s “Waste on the Water” series sensationally brought these excesses to light. Labor reform has been a third rail in Olympia and when our most powerful state senator attempted to reign in ferries, the next year she lost her job.

Public sympathy may now be souring as key ferry runs are being cancelled when crew members don’t show up. When one crew member was asked to fill in for a no-show, he blogged this response: “Well, pay me triple time plus travel time and mileage, plus give me another day off of my choosing.” His position’s regular pay is more than $40 per hour — yikes!

As the quote above illustrates, while Assistant Secretary David Moseley’s done his level best to efficiently run the system he inherited, further progress may be beyond what can be done in WSF’s current form. An analysis of WSF by the U.S. Passenger Vessel Association’s recommended changing ferry governance.

New governance must include a rider voice in decisions affecting us. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the modern quality movement, observed: The “voice of the customer” is the true measure of an organization’s performance. Reformed or not, the system cries out for public transparency with understandable annual reports and meaningful management measures. (Tip: check out B.C. Ferries’ annual report and business plan.)

Next time, the public ferry meeting will be discussed.

— FerryFare is written by Walt Elliott, chairman of the Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee. Contact him at