Washington State Ferries released an update to its service restoration plan on Tuesday, and it’s a mixed bag for ferry routes servicing Kitsap County.
State ferry service was severely curtailed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a subsequent shortage of crew members. The restoration plan, first released last March, lays out the ferry service’s plan for increasing its service to meet increasing demand, with an aim to “maintain reliability of service, ensure that service restoration can be maintained, prioritize routes based on ridership needs, and facilitate transparency and customer communications.”
The Seattle-Bremerton route, which has been operating on an alternative schedule and is being serviced by only one vessel (much to the frustration of people who rely on that route), is estimated to return to a regular schedule by October 2023, according to the plan. WSF doesn’t anticipate having enough crewing to restore full service to the route until after the end of the summer 2023 season; a trial of two-boat service is expected at the end of September. The route will be considered fully restored once it reaches 95 percent reliability over a three-week period, according to the plan.
In the meantime, the ferry service will add morning and midday trips as crewing and vessels are available, restoring partial two-boat service before the start of the summer season, the plan states.
Additionally, the ferry system will continue to support additional passenger-only fast ferry service from Kitsap Transit until the Seattle-Bremerton route is fully restored, the plan states. Kitsap Transit reached an agreement with the state in November to expand sailings to alleviate the impact of curtailed WSF sailings.
Full service for the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route is estimated to be restored by May 2023 for weekday service, and Fall 2023 for full service, the plan states.
WSF expects to begin trialing full weekday three-boat service in early April, or once a vessel and crewing are available. “Because the three-boat schedule is so different from the two boat schedule, the Trial Service stage will be more challenging than trials on other routes. WSF will communicate with customers regularly about each day’s expected schedule and anticipates it may take longer than three weeks to reach full route restoration,” the plan states.
Additionally, the plan states that while waiting for vessel and crewing availability necessary to trial three-boat service, WSF will add midday and evening service to fill gaps in the two-boat schedule.
On the bright side, full service was restored to the Edmonds-Kingston route in February. Full service was restored on the Seattle-Bainbridge route last April.
Crewing and vessel availability have been the primary challenge affecting WSF service levels, according to the plan update.
“In addition to the profound effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, WSF faces numerous ongoing challenges that compound the immediate crew and vessel shortages,” it states. “Many of these challenges were identified in the WSF 2040 Long Range Plan (LRP), submitted to the Legislature in January 2019. The LRP provides a proposal for investments and policy recommendations that support reliable, sustainable, and resilient ferry service through 2040 and beyond. The LRP identified investment in WSF’s workforce as one of the top priorities to ensure continued system reliability. It also placed particular attention on stabilizing the ferry fleet by building 16 new vessels and providing adequate time for vessel maintenance.”
WSF employs nearly 1,900 people on vessels, in terminals, at the Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility, and at WSF headquarters in Seattle, the update states.
“Due largely to funding provided by the Legislature in spring 2022 that allowed WSF to change the way it recruits, hires and trains employees for marine positions, the agency has made good progress in addressing crew availability challenges,” it states. “In 2022, WSF hired 202 fleet personnel. With 42 retirements and 99 separations for other reasons, that’s a net gain of 61 new fleet employees. With attrition still an issue, WSF continues to focus on the recruiting and training necessary to restore service across the system.”