The MV Sealth sails from Orcas to Shaw Island on the afternoon of Jan. 27, 2021. (Mandi Johnson/staff photo)

Catching up with the ferries

Though ferry ridership in the San Juans has nearly returned to its pre-pandemic levels, the service isn’t expected to change much, even as Washington State Ferries switches to a new schedule.

Following a reservation release mired by errors the day before, the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee held its normal meeting on March 10 wherein the group received an update from WSF Government Relations Director John Vezina.

Schedule changes

“The good news is that we won’t have to do another reservations release until the end of July,” Vezina said.

WSF’s release of reservations on March 9 was in preparation for the route’s peak season schedule set to begin May 9.

“Earlier than usual but with only four boats it is going to mean constraints on Lopez in the morning,” Vezina said. “We’re well aware that that’s going to be an adjustment for people.”

The pandemic required WSF to remain in its winter schedule far longer than it typically does. The agency usually has four schedules it switches through the seasons but is limiting itself to peak-seasons and non-peak season while staffing still suffers from the effects of the pandemic.

Because of this, WSF’s peak schedule is focusing on on-time performance and adding service, switching to the summer schedule in May instead of June. However, Lopez is set to receive the short end of the stick due to scheduling conflicts. The new schedule will run until Sept. 25.

While most routes are still down in ridership, Vezina noted the San Juan Islands route is down only 2 percent from its pre-pandemic level.

“Because 2020 was such an anomaly, we’ve been defaulting to comparing to 2019,” Vezina said.

Vezina noted the frustrations Lopez riders are experiencing over the lack of space on vessels for them.

“We wish things could be better but the schedule is what the schedule is,” Vezina said.

Lopez isn’t alone in receiving a frustrating schedule, the entirety of the islands will be forced to be on a winter schedule until May.

“Your ridership is back and April’s going to be tough,” Vezina said, referencing the pre-pandemic numbers of riders versus the vessel availability. He expressed empathy for the suggestions made by the FAC to help alleviate the concerns of islanders but indicated WSF scheduled the vessels to the best of its ability, which may not always make island riders happy.

“The [WSF scheduling] team just doesn’t feel that we can keep on-time performance with additional stops and this is just where we are,” Vezina said.

FAC Chairmember Jim Corenman said the group will monitor how the schedule affects the communities and request adjustments be made accordingly.

“It’s just a trade-off between Friday Harbor and Lopez in terms of what we can do, even with allotments,” Corenman said.

Corenman pointed out an “interesting” thing about the winter schedule, that on paper it has enough capacity to carry the number of riders, but it’s dwell times and the loading of the boats that cause difficulties.

“People want to be doing stuff other than sitting in the ferry lines waiting for a boat that’s an hour or two late,” Corenman said, adding that come April, riders will begin to see the strain.

Reservation woes

It wasn’t just the limited number of boats that ailed reservation-makers on March 9. Some commercial truckers noted difficulties making the numerous reservations required for the summer. Corenman said one such driver had to wait 30 seconds after every key click for the system to respond.

“That’s kind of unusual,” he said.

Another trucker’s problem, Corenman explained, was that he would get through all of the prompts, accept the $8,000 worth of no-show fees he would have to pay should he miss his reservations and the system would time out, requiring him to start over. When the trucker spoke to customer service, he had booked reservations for the entire season 13 times, racking up $100,000 in no-show fees.

San Juan County Council Member and FAC liaison Christine Minney asked if it could have been the islands’ internet causing the issue. Corenman rejected that theory.

“[It was] the glacial response to each click of the mouse,” Corenman said, adding it may have been a combination of the slow website response and the number of reservations commercial truckers need to make. “I think it’s two different problems. I think. It’s hard to tell from this side of the screen. … Computers find new and creative ways to screw up.”

Legislature news

According to Vezina, there are currently 21 of the fleet’s 24 vessels sailing. The break from 2000-2010 during which time no new vessels were built has put a strain on the system, he said.

The state Legislature requires WSF to keep vessels running for 60 years or more. On the San Juan route, the inter-island Tillikum is 61 years old, and WSF is trying to keep it running until spring 2024 when the islands are expected to receive a new vessel. The islands will receive no capacity relief even when a new vessel is assigned to the route, observed FAC Member Debbie Young.

“It could be a long time before there’s much relief on the horizon,” Young said.

Vezina, making a note to emphasize he does not suggest how each FAC or the public interacts with its legislators, stated that three regional legislators are educated on the topic of ferries and are working to address their constituents’ concerns. State Sen. Liz Lovelett is the co-chair of the ferry caucus; the house co-chair is from Skagit; and Rep. Alex Ramel is on the state’s House transportation committee.

“The three of them have really taken a deep dive on these questions,” Vezina said. “They understand the importance of this service to their constituents.”

Prior to the pandemic, WSF was starting to discuss a rework of the Anacortes-San Juan Islands’ route schedule.

“That’s next on our list, we know it needs to be done,” Vezina said. “We need things to settle a bit before we start or else we base the process on data that is not continual.”