In 105 days, our state legislature will hammer out its two-year budget. Getting Washington State Ferries out of its schemozzle means tackling crewing, vessel construction and maintenance issues. There’s also the challenge of our fares.
WSF staffs to minimum Coast Guard requirements. Since the standby system hasn’t been reliable, and other crew aren’t easily re-assignable, when a crewmember doesn’t show up to work the ship doesn’t sail.
The proposal is to crew boats above the minimum. Having the people to do that is a problem. Ferries was already in the hole when a wave of Boomer retirements followed Gov. Jay Inslee’s layoffs. Ferries doesn’t bring in experienced people. Since its political leadership wants to change traditional maritime culture, it brings people in at the bottom.
That takes time. Mates take five years to grow. Extra crew are also expensive, up to $9 million a year by my calculations. Even with the additional crew, if barriers to their use remain unresolved, the results will disappoint.
When Inslee pulled the plug on diesel ferry production, he thought the transition to hybrid would be easy. After three years, by spring 2022 Vigor, the contract shipyard, backed out of negotiations. Vigor’s cost was twice the Ferries’ estimate. (The limit is 5% over). Vigor also declined to take on the technology’s risk.
Bidding now goes statewide, which is unlikely to produce a bidder. (What other Washington shipbuilder can afford the risk while building boats for half the cost of Vigor?) With no qualified Washington bids, it then goes nationwide.
Deliveries would start more than a decade after Inslee stopped production. Government, business and labor all love “Built in Washington.” However, yards elsewhere have the facilities, technology, people and experience to build the five boats cheaper, with a higher production rate and just as good a product, if not better.
Our fleet is deteriorating waiting for replacements. Contributors were the early retirements of the Hyak after a failed hybridization, and the Elwha when repair costs ramped up.
Ferries now has only enough boats for the schedule plus one relief boat with another undergoing maintenance. That minimum fleet means that during breakdowns it’s a toss-up whether we see service cuts or less maintenance …which breeds more breakdowns.
Here’s what needs to be done.
We need a life-extension program for the venerable Tillikim. which is three years past her 60-year retirement date. Losing her knocks out a boat on either the San Juans, Vashon or Bremerton runs for five years.
We also need to spend $7 million in repairs to return Elwha to service.
And we need to drop the plan to take our perfectly good Jumbo II ferries offline to hybridize them. That hybridization won’t save money or significant carbon while the conversion risks extended tie-ups of the system’s major carriers and cash cows.
The legislature’s budget normally sets a 2 ½ percent per year fare increase. This time they must consider costs of extra crewing, higher fuel prices and lost revenue from schedule cutbacks. Will the budget cover these additional costs or will we see large fare increases with fuel and construction surcharges?
Ferries’ and the governor’s budgets reflect their self-interest. That’s their DNA. While their interests frequently overlap with rider interests, they’ve also competed with them. Hammering this out, with limited resources, will be a tough job for the legislature.
Walt Elliott writes a column periodically on Washington State Ferries for this newspaper.