Most of us in the islands are concerned about the ongoing problems with the Sealth, one of our three mainland ferries, which is undergoing lengthy repairs in Anacortes.
Understandably, cancellations and late sailings have given rise to a great deal of frustration. There is a tendency to blame Washington State Ferries for not solving the problems quicker, or at least providing another boat that could substitute for the Sealth in the meantime.
Each time Washington State Ferries visits the islands for their semiannual public meetings, we've heard David Moseley (Assistant Secretary and head of ferries) repeat the concern that ferries is not financially sustainable. What we may not have understood, until now, is that he was talking about exactly the situation we find ourselves in, with one boat out of service and no adequate replacements available.
FAC and ferries are very aware of the frustration stemming from the Sealth issue. We’ve been in contact with George Capacci (Deputy Chief and head of operations and capital) almost daily. Ferries is doing everything possible, the problem is that there aren't a lot of options. We can rant all we want but that doesn't get the boat fixed, nor get us a replacement that can keep up with the schedule.
The problem with the Sealth is a very infrequent steering failure at one end of the vessel. Tracking down the cause and fixing it has turned into a colossally frustrating exercise. The engineers and contractors have replaced all of the hydraulics and thought the problem was fixed, only to find that it failed once again during or after sea trials. They are now going through the electrical control system, part by part, testing and replacing. No one knows how long this will last.
It is important to understand that Ferries has only one spare boat, the 34-car Hiyu. It was brought up to replace the Evergreen State, which in turn has replaced the Sealth. So we have the full vessel complement for the current schedule, just smaller vessels and in one case slower. But that's a whole lot better than being short a boat. The bulletins regarding reduced speed and delays have hopefully provided the opportunity to make adjustments. That was one thing we stressed to ferries: Keep folks informed.
Until the legislature is willing to establish sustainable operational and capital funding for ferries, this is likely to be a more frequent occurrence. David Moseley's comments on funding are not empty words: The funds that the legislature has allocated since 2000 (when dedicated MVET ferry funds were lost) are not adequate to operate the system on an ongoing basis.
Operating funds have to be "borrowed" from other WSDOT accounts, new boats are delayed, major maintenance is put off, and vessel life is stretched to 60 years (while no other similar system goes past 30 or 40 years). Kicking the can down the road is not sustainable funding.
Frustration is understandable, but what is needed is feedback towards the legislature. A comprehensive transportation package is needed, but off the table for now. Our Representative Jeff Morris has introduced a bill to fund a third new 144-car "Olympic Class" ferry (HB1129), if this can be passed it will have a direct benefit to our routes.
The bill has passed the house and is pending before the Senate Transportation Committee. Our Senator Kevin Ranker supports this bill, urge him to help find votes. Talk to your friends across the mountains, ask then to press their senators to support ferries. We are all one state, and our ferries are not that much different than their rural highways, they all need public funding.
Senate email addresses: https://dlr.leg.wa.gov/MemberEmail/Default.aspx?Chamber=S Info on HB1129: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=1129&year=2013
Chair, San Juan County FAC