Head of WSF visits the San Juan Islands

The 30-minute rule, food vendor conflict and rider satisfaction were the hot topics of the Orcas community meeting with Washington State Ferries.

The head of WSF Lynne Griffith, her staff, the Ferry Advisory Committee and the San Juan County Council were all present for the meeting at the Orcas Senior Center on Tuesday, Aug. 9.

Griffith led the discussion by listing the following key points: addressing the management team’s effectiveness; uniting the ferry organization; focusing on the capital investments; and communication with legislature.

Unity

In the last two years, WSF has recruited all new leadership throughout the organization. Griffith said she has worked to unite all the departments, which were experiencing problems properly communicating with one another.

“That has impeded the ability of the organization to get its act together,” said Griffith.

Budget

Griffith addressed the issue of capital investment by noting that all but seven vessels on the fleet are over 30-years-old, and aging vessels potentially break down and need repaired more frequently than newer ones. She also stressed the necessity to maintain open communication with legislators about funding.

“I understand the importance to serve this membership and service it well,” she said.

According to Griffith, WSF has maintained operations with only half of the budget that was needed and the ferries still sail with 99.5 percent reliability. Griffith also explained that ridership is up 4.4 percent this summer season, the highest increase since the 1990s.

30-minute rule

“We made a mistake though,” Griffith admits. “We made a decision and didn’t let you know.”

She acknowledged the audience’s disatisfaction with the 30-minute rule implemented earlier this summer. As of March 20, reservation holders must be through the tollbooth 30 minutes prior to the ferry’s departure or else their reservation will be terminated. Critics of the new rule say it negates the necessity of having a reservation because if there is a long wait at the tollbooth you lose your reservation.

Brian Churchwell, WSF organization and systems project manager, said that the reservation system helped alleviate terminal staff’s stress levels, adding that Anacortes staff was initially against it.

“People overall seem a lot happier,” said Churchwell.

He added that a high percentage of no show reservation holders, explaining that each boat has any where from 4 to 25 percent of no shows depending on the ferry.

He also stated that WSF has some early numbers from the recent survey it took. Satisfaction for WSF ranged from 68 percent for full-time residents, low 80s for part-time residents and high 80s for visitors.

“I did hear your frustration, talked to everyone, tried to find a happy balance,” said Griffith. “By and large it’s working… It’s not perfect, but it is something we think right now is working.”

Senator Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, echoed Griffith by stating that overall the reservation system is working.

“I think ferry operations for islanders has improved over the past few years,” said Ranker, who made a brief appearance before leaving to attend another meeting.

Food fight

Griffith then moved on to another highly contested WSF decision, the replacement of the ferry food vendor, Bremerton-based Olympic Cascade Services, with Connecticut-based Centerplate. In addition to not renewing the contract with Olympic Cascade Services, the independently and locally-owned Cheesecake Cafe will be evicted from its location within the Anacortes terminal. She said that a process of receiving and reviewing bids for service is required by law every 10 years. There are criteria and deadlines that must be met, and each proposal is evaluated individually.

“It was not because we don’t like them,” said Griffith about the existing food vendor. “This is not a biased process. There are liabilities for us if we don’t follow that option.”

Griffith elaborated that any parties involved in the process had the chance to object to the decision and Cheesecake Cafe owner Margie Aipopo did not protest. Aipopo has been publicly battling WSF’s decision to not renew its contract since it was announced.

Opponents to the food vendor replacement have stated the new vendor will not be bringing money into the islands and that it will not employ locals. Griffith countered those fears by saying that the vendor will provide food with a very local flair and hire local staff.

“There’s likely to be more people hired than there is now,” she said.

Transportation

“I think we hold ferries to a really high level of expectation,” said San Juan County Councilmember Rick Hughes.

He noted that the state granted $740 thousand to construct the new Orcas park and ride because of help from WSF. He also said that if Skagit County gets a grant for its proposed bus system, 80 percent of ferries would be met by a bus.

“You can now get to Portland or North to Vancouver without a vehicle,” said Hughes. “I think it’s going to be better. They’re doing a really great job with the county.”

Hughes commented that Child Protective Services is currently working with WSF to resolve an issue they have with island accessibility. According to Hughes, it can take 6-8 hours to get to the islands without a reservation.

Q&A

Questions from the audience included several comments of general dissatisfaction with the 30-minute rule, such as the worries that reservation holders are unable to make it through the tollbooth 30 minute prior to sailing.

Churchwell said he would take islanders’ feelings on the rule back with him and work on writing a policy that is understandable for all users.

Hilary Canty argued that the three month expiration for pre-paid tickets is not fair.

“You got my money, I should be able to use all the tickets,” said Canty, who also suggested that if a person is unable to use them all, they should have the option to donate the unused tickets to the community resource center. “You’ve already gotten the money, [we] should get the ride.”

Others complimented WSF, or asked why residents can’t have any priority perks. WSF is a state-funded entity, so it is unable to give any preference to islanders, plus it would take a lot of paperwork.

One audience member asked about the unusual scheduling, like two boats sailing to Lopez at 5:10 and 6:45 p.m. but neither sail to Orcas. The response was because of the human factor and scheduling conflicts caused by overtime. FAC chairman Jim Corenman said that the FAC will continue to work on the schedules with WSF, and Hughes noted he will continue to plead with legislature for more funding.

Several audience members agreed that having a separate line for reservation holders, or someone available to pull reservation holders out of line and direct them to a separate booth may help reduce the stress caused by the 30-minute rule.

Churchwell also mentioned that WSF is considering increasing the no show fee to help mitigate the possibility of user abuse.

An audience member asked why there is not a later sailing from Friday Harbor to Orcas in the seasons other than summer. The response was that the vessels undergo routine maintenance during the off season, and when not being inspected and worked on they operate for more than 20 hours a day.

“We have to get these vessels into lay-up and maintenance,” said Griffith. “The limitation we’re going to have is working within budget.”

One question was asked about why WSF hasn’t adopted pay as you go technology for the ferry system, like the type which is used on toll roads. Churchwell said that WSF is researching new ticket models, including pay as you go systems.

The imminent earthquake was the focus of one person’s inquiry; what is WSF is doing to prepare for the disaster?

“We’re in a seismic retrofit for our terminals,” said Griffith, who explained that the goal would be to get all vessels to deep water to avoid damage from a tsunami. She then said that WSF participated in the Federal Emergency Management Agency-sponsored Cascadia Rising earthquake preparedness exercise that happened in mid-June.

“It was a good exercise, we learned a lot,” said Griffith. “I was very pleased.”

Cheesecake Cafe owner Aipopo took an opportunity to state her opinion about the food vendor decision during the question and answer segment as well. WSF staff did not provide a response to her statement.

“I think you guys made a big mistake,” said Aipopi. “I think you really let the people of Washington down.”