PORT ORCHARD — The growth of the Puget Sound region, specifically in Kitsap County, has been a thorn in the side of Washington State Ferries officials as they grapple with ways to transport people and goods, specifically between West Seattle’s Fauntleroy and South Kitsap’s Southworth ferry terminals.
But adapting a revised ferry route schedule between the two locations hasn’t been an easy exercise. Two major issues have stood in the way of accommodating growth patterns: the third part of the existing Triangle Route, as it’s known — Vashon — and the inadequacies of the Fauntleroy terminal, which hasn’t been updated since the late 1950s.
But the schedule revision draft by WSF that is now being reviewed by the public does take away some long-established elements that have elicited more than a few grumbles from commuters in all three communities.
There are some downsides: For Southworth customers, it will mean the elimination of direct sailings to Fauntleroy. For those commuting from Vashon, there will be fewer morning sailings to Fauntleroy. And for those on the West Seattle side, it could mean longer evening commute lines along Fauntleroy Way.
WSF officials say, however, that the new schedule will benefit Southworth riders by offering additional departures that leave every 25 to 35 minutes instead of the current 55 minutes.
This intricate chess game in rescheduling one of the region’s busiest maritime commuter routes has been met with criticism mainly from ferry users and even some government agencies from Vashon, which depend on the vessels to transport emergency vehicles to the mainland.
Public open houses
Nevertheless, WSF outreach officials are reviewing public input gathered from a series of public open houses at locations in Fauntleroy, Vashon and Southworth last week.
On Oct. 25, WSF invited residents to attend an open house at Harper Church on Sedgwick Road, near the Southworth terminal. With the meeting area lined with illustrated charts set up on easels and informational packets available, there was barely room for a full house of attendees to circulate. Officials also handed out comment forms for them to fill out at the end of their visit.
A major element of the schedule revision is this: WSF is hoping to assign a third 124-car Issaquah-class vessel to the route beginning in the spring that officials hope will accommodate a forecasted growth in ridership. But they concede that by adding more capacity, the load and unload times will impact the schedule as ferry terminal crews struggle to keep pace in ensuring that boats are filled before sailing.
According to WSF, this planned schedule overhaul would be the first major change since 2003 when smaller vessels started serving the route.
“This is an opportunity to take a fresh look at the schedule in order to meet the changing needs of all three communities and to address issues such as boats leaving with space available, long lines on Fauntleroy Way, new travel patterns and growing ridership,” the state agency stated in its sailing revision summary.
The ferry system said the change is part of a two-year community process that has enlisted the assistance of the Triangle Route Improvement Task Force and local community ferry advisory committees.
The major stumbling block in constructing a satisfactory plan for all residents who regularly use the ferries are the limitations of the Fauntleroy terminal. Built 60 years ago in a then-sleepy southern section of West Seattle prior to the press of increased urbanization, the terminal wasn’t designed to support the traffic destined to and from Vashon and Southworth that it now experiences.
A University of Washington study released in January concluded an inefficient ticketing process and a dock that can’t support existing growth, let alone future growth, are major factors in the quandary. It results in half-empty ferries leaving Fauntleroy in order to keep on schedule, with vehicles stranded in long lines stretching out onto Fauntleroy Way, a major urban arterial.
The ferry system concluded in its study that a new boat with a higher capacity will move more people, and a revised schedule will be able to accommodate the change.
But the head of the Vashon Ferry Advisory Committee criticized the plan, particularly how it affects sailings between Fauntleroy and Vashon.
In an article in the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Oct. 26, Greg Beardsley said he was particularly concerned about a 75-car reduction in vehicle allotment during early morning commutes between Vashon and Fauntleroy. The island will lose four sailings each day, three of them in the afternoon and evening, the article stated.
Instead, Beardsley and others have called for a “pendulum” schedule where sailings would take place every half-hour among the three terminals, with a stop in succession at Southworth, then Vashon and on to Fauntleroy.
Some of the comments received by WSF officials include: “Need more service from Southworth to Fauntleroy during morning commute hours.”
“Be reliable and stick to the schedule.”
“Increasing the number of vehicles taken from and to Southworth, we are forced to travel around through Tacoma due to the lack of available room on the ferries.”
“What we really need is a fourth ferry on the Southworth/Vashon/Fauntleroy triangle route to handle the increased traffic for now and into the future.”
The public comment period for the draft sailing schedule ends Nov. 9. Sometime in December, state ferry officials will finalize a new sailing schedule, with service set to take effect when the spring schedule starts March 31, 2019.