Improvements needed, but ferry leaders say agency is still successful

The Cathlamet travels to Mukilteo on a recent run. Washington’s ferries chief visited Island County last week to give leaders an update on the system.

Despite the troubles faced by Washington State Ferries in recent years, the agency still manages to be reliable 99.5 percent of the time, according to Washington State Department of Transportation, Ferries Division, Assistant Secretary Lynne Griffith.

The newly-appointed secretary fielded questions from Island County commissioners Thursday along with other jurisdictions impacted by state ferry service.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson agreed that the ferries usually run so smoothly that it’s easy for residents to get “cranky” when things go wrong.

Still, the ferry system locally has seen some problems in recent years, particularly concerning design issues. The Coupeville ferry had a list, and ramps on the Clinton ferry were manufactured too steep for low-carriage vehicles.

As a result of these issues, Griffith said she made it a priority to “hit the water first,” spending her first three months with employees on the front lines.

“The fleet is a lot smarter at this than I will ever be,” Griffith said, adding that her ground-up approach will hopefully help her find out “what really needs attention, and what we are doing really well.”

Outreach to both staff and passengers is going to be really important, according to Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard. Ferry leadership’s lack of connection with the fleet has lead to employee “disenfranchisement,” Conard said.

“You’ve got some work to do,” Conard said. “People need to be excited about what they are doing.”

Still, Conard agreed that state ferries’ 99.5 percent reliability statistic is a message local leaders need to help get out to the public.

Griffith said that she’s already gotten positive feedback about her open-door management style and that some have gone out of their way to meet with her.

“They’ve already said it makes a difference, but then I gotta deliver,” Griffith said. “You can’t just talk.”

Other suggestions by local leaders included providing more informative ferry alerts, the need to give ferries the same priority as roads and bridges, and discouraging the cancellation of a late-night route out of Clinton.

Griffith, who most recently served as chief executive officer of Pierce Transit, said one of the biggest adjustments to her was that the fleet only runs with a single spare boat, which poses logistical challenges when boats need routine maintenance.

By contrast, bus transit services are mandated by the federal government to run with a 20 percent spare ratio, Griffith said.

“It’s a new thing for me to adapt to,” Griffith said. “One boat. It won’t work. We need new boats and we need to keep building.”

Griffith said that traditionally the legislature has not been in favor of increasing the number of spare boats, but she believes it should be a priority.

“I have to build that case,” Griffith said. “It’s a significant investment.”

Lacey Harper, deputy director of external affairs for the governor’s office, said that Gov. Jay Inslee agrees that the state needs a transportation package, but more importantly something that is sustainable long term.

“We keep falling into the water,” Harper said. “We have crumbling roads and vessels we need to deal with.”

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson pointed out that fares for ferries have increased 200 percent since 2000, making it difficult for the island’s working population.

“In our community, the recession has had an impact on low-wage jobs,” Price Johnson said. “There’s a lot less elasticity in those budgets. It’s had a real dampening effect to keep families on island if their pay isn’t increasing but fares are.”

Griffith said she has announced an organization restructuring that she believes will help address some of the issues experienced by the ferry system.

“It doesn’t mean I’m cleaning house,” Griffith said. “It makes sure we’re as lean and as flat as we can be.”

Griffith, appointed in September, has more than 35 years’ experience in the transportation industry in transit, airlines and rail, from entry-level operations to executive management, according to the state’s website.

Upcoming local ferry projects include:

— A May 2-3 service interruption for maintenance at Coupeville;

— The replacement of seismically vulnerable ferry terminals at Mukilteo and Coleman Dock as funded with $81.6 million in the governor’s 2015-2017 budget;

— A fourth Olympic class vessel expected to be delivered in the 2017-2019 biennum, to begin with $86 million earmarked in the governor’s 2015-2017 budget.