WSF report outlines factors behind loss of second boat on PT ferry run

Posted 7/14/21

Restoring ferry service to levels seen before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic will take the rest of the year — at least.

That’s the takeaway from a white-paper report released by …

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WSF report outlines factors behind loss of second boat on PT ferry run

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Restoring ferry service to levels seen before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic will take the rest of the year — at least.

That’s the takeaway from a white-paper report released by Washington State Ferries following the state’s recent announcement that two-boat service will not be restored to the Port Townsend-Coupeville route for the peak travel season.

WSF announced late last month the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry route would stay with one-boat service “for the foreseeable future.”

The announcement was the second setback for the Port Townsend run. The lack of a second boat was first forecast in April, when WSF said it would extend the winter sailing schedule for all ferry routes through June 20. 

WSF Government Relations Director John B. Vezina notified local leaders in June that the route would remain with just one boat.

Vezina noted the loss of the ferry M/V Wenatchee after a fire earlier this year aboard the boat, which took one of the ferry system’s three largest vessels out of service for several months.

That caused ripple effects across the system, Vezina said in his email Tuesday, but he added that the biggest problem now was the number of crew members available for sailings.

“Over the last couple of days, we have had to cancel sailings on several routes due to the lack of available crewing, leading us to the frustrating conclusion we do not have the capacity to add a second vessel to the Port Townsend-Coupeville route for the foreseeable future,” Vezina wrote.

“While we won’t experience this continued service reduction in the same way you and your constituents will,” he said in his email to local officials, “we understand its serious repercussions on businesses, vacationers, and local residents.”

“We have looked at every option, but as we aren’t able to consistently provide even our current service, it would be irresponsible to try to expand it further, knowing we couldn’t reliably crew the second vessel, leading to even more frustration,” Vezina added.

The Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry has a significant impact on the local and regional economy, according to an economic impact study commissioned last year.

The ferry route has an estimated impact of $57 million annually in the Port Townsend/Jefferson County area, according to an analysis by E.D. Hovee & Company.

The analysis said the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry was responsible for 695 jobs and $30 million in annual labor income in Port Townsend and Jefferson County, according to 2019 figures. That’s in addition to the $57 million per year of spending and other economic output.

Combined with the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, the study said, the two ferry routes are responsible for 49 percent of tourism spending in Jefferson County, according to the study.

SILVER LINING

In one bright spot for Port Townsend’s tourist-dependent economy, Vezina said WSF is looking at restoring the last round-trip sailings on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route.

The feasibility of restoring those sailings are currently being studied, he said.

“I will keep you informed of our progress and let you know if there are any changes in circumstances allowing the last round-trips to be restored,” he said.

Vezina said he realized the announcement of the lack of a second boat on the route would not be welcome news. 

“I understand this isn’t the news you, or the residents of your respective communities were looking for — it’s certainly not what we’d planned when we pushed the resumption of two-boat service to this weekend,” he said.

WSF publicly announced the fate of the second ferry on the Port Townsend route June 23.

“We looked at every option, but as we’re unable to consistently provide even our current service due to a shortage of crews, adding service would mean additional cancellations. We’re hiring as qualified candidates are located and working with our labor partners on these challenges,” WSF said in its announcement. “Thank you for your patience while we navigate this challenging time.” 

‘PROBLEMATIC’ RETURN

In a detailed report released by WSF after the announcement, transportation officials said restoring ferry service to pre-pandemic levels “has been problematic.”

“While COVID-related restrictions have begun to ease and vehicle ridership levels have returned to nearly pre-pandemic levels, there are still limits on WSF’s ability to provide full, reliable service,” the report said.

The white paper noted the system’s two biggest challenges: vessel availability and crewing of the boats.

Ferry officials said the number of boats in the fleet was at an all-time low.

“The root of some of the recent service challenges is a shortage of vessels,” the report said.

WSF said 19 boats are needed during the summer, but the system must also make time for Coast Guard-mandated inspections, routine maintenance, and preservation work on the vessels.

WSF has 21 vessels in the system, and officials noted that there is not an extra boat to put into action when any vessels are removed from service for unplanned repairs.

AN AGING FLEET

Because the system’s ferries continue to age and approach the end of their service life, the report noted that WSF needs to keep building new ships and add 16 vessels in the next 19 years.

The report noted the 10-year gap, between 2000 and 2010, when no new ferries were built.

In the WSF’s 21-boat fleet, one ferry is 62 years old, another two are more than 50 years old, and five others are more than 40 years old.

Washington ferries have historically been in service for 60 years, but officials noted that the current size of the fleet makes it hard to remove ferries from service to conduct preservation activities.

“Another limitation is funding, as a preservation program depends on reliable and predictable financing,” the WSF reported noted.

WSF has a current preservation backlog of more than $245 million.

Ferry officials also noted commercial shipyard resources are limited, and there is only one shipyard in Puget Sound that can handle WSF’s five largest ferries.

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