The state ferry Tokitae transported over 23,000 fewer cars, made 10 percent fewer sailings, and cost nearly twice as much per run in fuel in 2016 than its smaller counterparts on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo ferry route.
Yet, the numbers also show the larger Olympic Class boat on average carried more cars per trip than the Issaquah Class vessels, thereby satisfying Washington State Ferries’ overall goal of increasing capacity on the state’s busiest motor vehicle route and retaining agency leaders confidence in the new design.
“The numbers are right where I’d expect them to be,” said Ray Deardorf, the department’s planning director.
The ridership statistics were revealed in an extensive review by the South Whidbey Record of the Tokitae’s performance this past year, a period where people reported unusually long waiting lines and regularly tardy sailings. Many lay the blame on the new ferry, saying the bigger boat is slower and takes longer to load than a 30-minute schedule can afford. While the state has acknowledged the problem and unveiled an experimental schedule change that aims to improve service this year, particularly during the busy summer season, critics are skeptical the plan will work. Others are even less confident the new boats are the solution for the route’s ridership headaches.
The Suquamish, sister ship to the Tokitae, is set to join the run in 2018.
Built to take up to 144 cars, the Olympic Class boats can haul 20 more vehicles than the 124-car Issaquah Class ferries. It made them an appealing replacement for the aging boats on the Clinton route, which has held the title as the busiest motor vehicle route in the state’s system for at least the past five years.
Last year a total of 2.23 million cars made the crossing, over 100,000 more vehicles than the run’s closest competitor, the Edmond-Kingston route.
According to ridership statistics compiled by Washington State Ferries at the request of The Record, however, the Tokitae transported fewer cars overall — 842,742 — than the Issaquah Class boats — 866,106 — while operating on the run; the boat was not in service or elsewhere for about nine weeks total, and the totals for both reflect only the period when the Tokitae was working in Clinton.
Records also show that the 124s made about 1,000 more trips than the Tokitae during 2016. The smaller boats, comprised of the Chelan, Issaquah, Kitsap and Kittitas, made 10,573 sailings compared to the Tokitae’s 9,503, a difference of about 10 percent.
While the numbers may seem incriminating at first glance, proof that the boats aren’t helping, ferry officials say the statistics are misleading. The run is mostly served by two boats that begin and end at different times of the day. The route transitions to one-boat service during the last three to five sailings of the day, depending on the day of the week and time of year. The ferries rotate which one has the longer shift, and the Tokitae is on three days a week to the Issaquah Classes’ four. According to Deardorf, that unequal rotation makes up the difference.
But more importantly, he says, the larger boat is taking more cars per load than its smaller counterparts: the Tokitae hauled on average 88.7 cars in 2016 compared to 81.9 shuttled by the Issaquah Class boats.
“That’s 8 percent more vehicles per trip,” Deardorf said.
The statistic seems to lend support to the hefty 3.8 percent increase in transported vehicles in 2015, the first full year the Tokitae was in service on the Clinton route. But critics say it’s too easy to simply attribute the growth to the arrival of the new boat.
“That’s a pretty big leap,” said David Freed, a Clinton resident and long-time daily commuter.
There could be a number of factors involved, such as changes in demographics or travel habits during holidays. Also, the run saw annual growth for several years before 2015, he said. There may have been small increases — 1.1 percent in 2012, 1.4 percent in 2013, and 1.3 percent in 2014 — but it’s a clear indicator that the run was growing before the Tokitae’s arrival.
Incidentally, the route saw the first ridership decline in five years in 2016. The total number of people who used the service fell by 1 percent, from 4.11 million travelers in 2015 to 4.07 million last year. That worked out to about 39,500 fewer people.
The number of cars hauled across the route also decreased by nearly 300 vehicles. That’s a 0.01 percent statistical sliver of the total 2.23 million vehicles shuttled to and from the South End, and Deardorf says it may represent a “practical capacity” of the route, or the result of the long waits that made headlines last year encouraging people to avoid the run.
Not a perfect boat
While the Tokitae appears to be doing its job based on the average number of cars hauled per load, it comes with a premium. The agency doesn’t track fuel costs by vessel or by route, but it does have trip averages.
The Kittitas averaged fuel consumption of 38.4 gallons at a cost of $77 per trip compared to the 63.1 gallons used by the Tokitae at a cost of $127 per trip.
It also appears that the larger ferry is slower, with an average transit time of 14 minutes to the Issaquah Class’s 13 minutes. It fits with widespread complaints and beliefs that the boat can’t keep up with its predecessors.
Both boats have a maximum speed of about 17 knots. One common question is why can’t the Tokitae simply speed up when running behind. According to Captain Curt Larson, one of the vessel’s regular skippers, they do hit the gas when needed but it’s often just not enough to make up the difference, especially on such a short run with a boat that takes longer to load.
Skippers know the larger size is a source of delay, and some have standing orders to stop loading at 135 cars — nine short of its total capacity.
According to Larson, the biggest problems are not the fault of boats or crews but uncontrollable variables such as broken cars, weather, or traffic delays, particularly on the Mukilteo side. The facility is nestled in a busy area, and one person pulling out from a restaurant parking lot can put the boat behind. Traffic lights and pedestrians are also factors.
“Throw a medical priority on that and now half your day is shot,” added Ian Sterling, the transportation agency’s spokesman.
Freed acknowledged that there’s not a lot the Mukilteo ferry crews can do to address the problems, that they’re doing a good job “with what they have to deal with,” but he pointed out that the other boats have to contend with the same variables and it’s only since the Tokitae arrived that tardy sailings became such a pressing problem.
“I just have a hard time buying that argument,” Freed said.
Like many ferry officials, Larson is hopeful the new Mukilteo terminal will address the traffic problems and streamline loading, at least on one end of the run. The facility is isolated from area traffic and has overhead passenger loading, which should shave off precious minutes on each sailing.
“The big picture is there just too many people for this small facility,” said Larson, of the current Mukilteo terminal.
The new terminal is expected to begin service in 2019, about one year after the 144-car Suquamish joins the route.
In the meantime, the state launched an experimental schedule change aimed at addressing the route delays, which have caused other problems such as riders missing transit connections. On-time annual performance has dropped from about 99 percent in 2013 to about 95 percent in 2016.
Average on-time performance during the summer months is even worse, dipping as low as 85 percent last year.
The changes target specific runs, largely those in the afternoon where statistics point to the greatest delays — some are as low as 51 percent, such as Saturday’s 3 p.m. sailings — by pushing back departure times by five to 10 minutes.
Unsurprisingly, the plan isn’t without criticism. At a recent open house on the schedule change in Clinton, some attendees said they felt the plan would work but others were plain spoken in their skepticism.
“I don’t think it’s going to work and I think it’s stupid,” said Vicky McFarlane, a Langley resident.
If the boats are running five minutes late, pushing back the schedule only fixes the problem on paper. Also, she worries it will have a greater cost.
“There’s no way they aren’t going to lose one of the runs [at the end of the day],” she said.
Others say the state is wasting its time experimenting with schedule changes and larger boats. This is the busiest run in the system and requires appropriate resources.
“We need two terminals on both sides and three boats,” said Kathy Tobiason, a Clinton resident.
The meeting wasn’t without supporters, however. Dean Enell, a South Whidbey resident, said he saw the change as a minor inconvenience, and one that will tackle one of the biggest problems of tardy sailings: the issue of commuters missing transit connections.
“The important thing is they coordinated with the transit agencies,” he said.
Hadley Rodero, an agency spokeswoman, confirmed that four transit agencies — Island, Community, Everett and Sound — made schedule changes to accommodate the new ferry times. She added that Washington State Ferries made seven adjustments to the draft schedule following the community outreach meeting.
Despite the complexities of the route and the Tokitae’s performance last year, Deardorf and Sterling say they are confident the 144-car boats are a good fit on the run. And if they prove to be otherwise, nothing says a change can’t be made.
“If it doesn’t, we’ll toss it quickly” Sterling said. “It’s our job to do the best we can for the customer.”