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Running late? You must be a ferry commuter

Friday afternoon ferry runs have been late for the past several weeks. - Review file photo
Friday afternoon ferry runs have been late for the past several weeks.
— image credit: Review file photo

Friday afternoon departures have seen significant delays for three weeks.

As the ferry propeller whirls in Puget Sound, it’s racing an army of similarly rotating mechanisms ashore: the wristwatches of waiting commuters.

But like slowing a mammoth ferry, it takes time to drop the anchor on tardiness, particularly once it’s picked up momentum. Ask Washington State Ferries, as it struggles to synchronize clocks with docks.

“We are greatly concerned about this,” said WSF spokesperson Susan Harris-Huether of late-arriving and, by extension, late-departing boats in recent weeks. “We’re looking at all the issues as we try to find solutions, but there are some things we don’t have a lot of control over.”

The 4:35 p.m. Seattle-bound sailing has departed 40 to 45 minutes late the past three Fridays.

Harris-Huether said there was no single cause for the delays, but one of the most glaring problems is inefficient loading.

As sum­mer approaches and tourism picks up, ferry traffic increases. Harris-Huether said that because many of the new faces on the ferry are unfamiliar with loading procedures, confusion and delays sometimes ensue.

“We don’t see these problems as often when the weather is bad because there simply aren’t as many walk-ons,” she said.

Once off the vessel, she said, slow-exiting passengers then get snared in ferry exit facilities that are ill-equipped to handle the system’s rapidly growing ridership.

On the Bainbridge side of the run, pedestrians coming to and from the ferry often create tangles in traffic as they cross the street midway down Highway 305. As traffic slows, cars on the ferry must wait to unload, leaving boarding passengers parked in cars or shivering beneath umbrellas until the ferry empties.

Meanwhile, eight miles across the water in Seattle, cars block the intersection at the north gate, particularly if traffic is already bad, causing further delays.

Harris-Huether said Friday evening commutes see the worst delays, especially if the weather is nice or the Mariners are playing a home game that evening.

Enter the fleet of luxury cruise ships, which typically arrive in Elliott Bay near the weekend and issue no-wake requests to the ferry system.

“Once we get behind, it’s difficult to catch back up,” said ferry Capt. Mark McElwaine. “Because the cruise ships limit our speed, once we lose that time we can’t get it back.”

Jumbo Mark II Class ferries, which are the type used on the Seattle-Bainbridge run, typically cruise at about 19 knots, or 22 miles per hour.

Harris-Huether said late boats sometimes cruise at 20 or 21 knots, the maximum speed for most vessels in the WSF fleet, to make up time. Even so, speeding boats arrive only one to two minutes earlier than they would have otherwise, with the drawback of increased fuel costs.

“Given the numbers, it doesn’t make enough difference to warrant the extra expense,” said Harris-Huether, of increasing the speed limit and spending what she said could amount to an additional $1 million worth of fuel per year.

Short of speeding up, she said, WSF is considering two short-term solutions to help spur lagging vessels.

First, the “two-minute rule” – long on the books but rarely enforced – may soon take effect.

The rule states that walk-on passengers who fail to board at least two minutes prior to the scheduled departure time will be left behind.

“A lot of the captains are nice enough to linger if they see someone running up the ramp,” Harris-Huether said. “But if 99.9 percent of the passengers are already on board, it doesn’t make sense to hold everyone else up.”

In the case of unavoidable delays, Harris-Huether said the ferry system is striving to better communicate with its customers.

“It’s important that we announce why they’re late,” she said. “I think that makes it a little more bearable for people.”

For vessels running late enough to encroach on the departure times of the next scheduled departure, ferries usually won’t wait to leave, even if the next sailing is only a few minutes away.

Doing so, Harris-Huether said, would result in overtime pay for crews, which are assigned to specific routes.

Addition­ally, with routes already crammed bow to bow on one of the ferry system’s busiest runs, there is little slack in the schedule for error.

Harris-Huether said WSF would only drop a run as a last resort possibility.

Other, more permanent fixes are further off. Both the Winslow and Seattle terminals will undergo renovations in the coming years.

The Bainbridge terminal will see $160 million worth in improvements, with Colman Dock scheduled to receive its own $225 million facelift. A goal of both projects is to solve transportation issues that currently plague the system with delays.

Until then, Harris-Huether advised passengers to show up early, lest they be left staring at the wake.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” she said.

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