WSF: Stark Choices

by Robert deGavre

Twenty years ago the Legislature rescinded the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, WSF’s principal source of funding. Subsequently, it has failed to find alternative funds. WSF continued operations in large part by delaying major maintenance and replacement of vessels and terminals. Funds intended for capital investment were diverted to operating deficits. In the prescient words of a 2009 State study, “the ferry system will face certain cuts in service and, over time, declining condition of both the fleet and terminal facilities.” That forecast is upon us today.

The immediate problem is WSF has enough licensed and qualified personnel only to crew 16 to 17 of its 21 boats. Roughly 10% of WSF’s labor force retired, resigned or left pending full vaccination due to the Covid-19 vaccine mandate. But staffing deficits go far deeper than Covid-19

Years of budget cutbacks have eroded recruitment, training and compensation in many different ways. They also prevented WSF from responding to a well-forecast retirement surge. In 2019 75% of the captains and 53% of the senior engineers were eligible to retire in five years. Senior personnel have been retiring faster than they are trained.

Crewing may not be a multi-year issue if WSF responds with training programs, competitive compensation for new hires and incentives for senior, experienced personnel to defer retirement.

WSF’s quandary — with no near term solution — is a depleted fleet of 21 boats — reduced from 23 boats. A 21-boat fleet cannot fulfill its minimum operating and maintenance requirements.

Both the tempo of operations — many boats operate for 20+ hours each day — and their planned 60-year life expectancy dictate that boats be pulled off operations for maintenance and preservation. And 3 ferries will soon be withdrawn for conversion to hybrid-electric propulsion.

WSF has budgeted — but not achieved — an out-of-service goal of eight weeks per boat. This translates into 3 boats on average in the yards throughout the year. Thus boats available for operations are reduced from 21 to 18, assuming no unexpected mechanical issues.

To service peak season schedules, WSF requires 20 boats (including 1 boat on standby) and 19 boats for the remainder of the year. With 18 boats available, the math does not add up.

What is the prospect for adding boats through 2025?

A new Olympic class hybrid electric ferry is to enter service in 2025. With the retirement of the Tillikum, the fleet size will remain at 21. Nothing done today can change that fact.

What is the prospect for adding boats through 2030?

WSF’s 2040 Long Term Plan contemplates retiring four more boats and building eight additional boats before 2030, increasing the fleet to 25. Three years into the Plan, WSF has fallen two years behind its construction schedule and prematurely accelerated the Elwha’s retirement.

The eight-boat building program — almost two boats per year — faces daunting challenges: multi-billion funding, availability at Vigor Shipyards, build-in-State mandate, and ineligibility for Federal funding. Just building four boats to offset retirements requires an almost unprecedented building program.

A fleet of only 21 boats through 2025 and probably through 2030 presents very ugly choices to WSF. It can — as it has been doing — starve maintenance and preservation, ration demand through reservations, and opportunistically reduce sailings. But that will no longer suffice. It will be compelled to cut sailings and accept increased operational unreliability.