The summer of our discontent with Washington State Ferries

Who should be fired?

The Canadian Broadcast Corp. reports that B.C. Ferries’ CEO Mark Collins was fired after canceling 173 sailings in 28 days (1.4 percent of their sailings), which “had a significant impact on coastal communities and residents.” By contrast, Washington State Ferries’ “alternate schedules” dropped a hefty 2,744 sailings in 28 days (25 percent of sailings).

Traffic control

While elsewhere ferry demand lagged, at Kingston it roared back, colliding with single-boat service. The result was uncontrolled backups. When we had two-boat service, however, there were few backups.

In 2020, Ferries took over contracting for “off-duty” traffic control officers from the State Patrol. The goal is to prevent gridlock and line cutting by issuing boarding passes and queuing traffic west of Lindvog. Kingston resident Chris Ifland deployed a network of traffic monitoring cameras, and, with community members, collected and analyzed extensive traffic data on how the system is working.

Here’s a summary:


Last winter Ferries was given an extra $485,000 “solely” for Kingston’s traffic control. Initially Ferries just replicated last year’s schedule while adding no coverage for single-boat day backups. By late July, Ferries finally added Thursday and Monday officers but still no single-boat coverage. While expanding traffic control coverage elsewhere, WSF is using only about half of the money earmarked for Kingston. At the same time, there was officer coverage when there were no backups. Without data and the “voice of the customer,” mismatched use of resources is inevitable. Using Ifland’s database and community participation would be trés intelligent.

While the traffic control officers are skilled professionals, improvements are needed to prevent back-ups and gridlock. They and WSF terminal staff need to know Kingston’s procedures. They also deserve accurate procedures. The procedures they have were written for three officers when WSF normally assigns two. Procedures also need updating with critical information such as the fact that limiting car releases at Lindvog to six cars per minute prevents downtown backups.

Holding lot

Meanwhile, after years of inaction, Clint Boxman’s spot-on emails compelled Ferries to improve holding lot utilization. Now when there are backups, the lot is more fully filled before cars are held outside the terminal waiting lot.

Information signs

While Ferries puts out ferry traffic information in their alerts and on their websites, it’s WSDOT that controls the highway Variable Message Signs and Highway Advisory Radios. The timely and accurate transfer of that information between WSF and WSDOT remains problematic.

Boarding passes

At unpredictable times, when officers were on duty boarding passes were not used, and cars were waved through at the Lindvog checkpoint, invariably creating confusion and conflict. A standard procedure should be used and posted road signs should agree with what’s being done.

Conclusion: D+

Ferries’ response to traffic control problems was that they’re beset with “historic challenges” and “only have so much capacity to address other (traffic control) issues.” They also lack expertise. “We run ferries, not cars.” After three summers I heartily agree. WSP, however, has excellent traffic control skills, and experience. They’re also great to work with. Why not transfer Kingston’s traffic control contract management along with funding back to WSP?

Walt Elliott writes a monthly column on Ferries for this newspaper.