USCG decision may impact ferry service

The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) last week directed Washington State Ferries (WSF) to amend its procedures for assigning crews to operate the ferry boats. Those changes will necessitate a comprehensive review of ferry schedules on every route in the system. The route most impacted by the rule changes will be the San Juan Islands.

Last year grievances were filed by members of the Inland Boatmen’s Union to question the ability of crews to perform their duties safely without sufficient sleep. The USCG recently completed an “endurance study” of the WSF crews and concluded that the long-standing practice of scheduling “back-to-back” shifts with the crews sleeping on the boats between them did not allow sufficient rest and was, therefore, compromising the safety of the crews and the passengers.

The USCG ruling will now restrict the crews to a total of twelve work hours in any 24 hour period. The Inland Boatmen’s Union (IBU) Labor Contract further restricts that time to a maximum nine-hour shift. Current schedules in the Islands include crew shifts of as long as ten hours. Therefore all of the local schedules will be reviewed this Fall to ascertain changes that will be necessary to comply with the USCG ruling.

The impact on the San Juan Islands is such that, for example, it will no longer be possible to stage a ferry overnight in Friday Harbor. A vessel will, instead, need to depart Anacortes very early in the morning in order to provide “redeye” service from San Juan Island. Other changes to the island schedules are anticipated as the review is completed by WSF management and the San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC) in consultation with the County Council.

Ferry system management has advised the local FAC that the intent of WSF to make necessary schedule changes to down-Sound routes first as they are less complex. Changes to the schedules in the San Juan Islands may not occur until sometime next year, perhaps as late as the Summer 2009 season. The expected recommendations from the Transportation Commission later this year regarding pricing changes, reservations, and levels of service resulting from the surveys throughout the system will have an impact on how ferry service is provided to the Islands in the future.

According to Ed Sutton, chairman of the San Juan FAC, it is expected that the many different customer groups using the local ferries will have an opportunity to provide input to the review process in order to amend the schedules in a manner that is beneficial, if possible, and minimize any negative impacts. The FAC will be meeting with WSF staff next month to better understand the ramifications of the Coast Guard ruling.