Operating expenses for ferry system a challenge

The Legislature’s short session from January to March is underway. That means lawmakers only consider supplemental changes to their two-year budget.

Normally operational changes are routine, one-time adjustments to things like fuel costs, credit card fees, unplanned maintenance, overtime and other pay. The capital increases are for the electrification programs. Operating increases have some interesting items.

$4.2 million is added to the already pricey $8.1 million Able-Bodied Seaman to Mate program. It will send candidates to the Seattle Maritime Institute for their Coast Guard license.

$2.25 million will study passenger-only ferry service. It will re-examine the 2007 decision to eliminate Washington State Ferries service of that type. It will focus on the San Juans. How about using the $2 million to have the Victoria Clipper make stops at Kingston, Friday Harbor and Sidney, B.C.?

$1.6 million of insurance premium increases mostly from the Cathlamet’s crash.

$1.5 million will study a new, politically motivated, ferry design specifically for Fauntleroy-Southworth-Vashon.

$1 million will add four months of increased Bremerton passenger ferry service from November to January.

$658,000 for people at Mukilteo and Colman to help ADA passengers with their new, complex turnstiles.

$538,000 adds two more Diversity Equity and Inclusion staff.

$467,000 adds two dispatchers, and an administrator to help handle calling up reliefs for no-shows. No-shows average 36 per day requiring an average of 522 replacement calls.

$449,000 increases Colman dock security guards to 24/7.

$330,000 for a charter boat to shuttle crew living on the mainland from Anacortes to Friday Harbor.

$228,000 adds another operations deputy to the staff.

$ 159,000 adds a stop at Orcas Island on the Anacortes to Lopez run.

$148,000 will fund visual text communications for the hard of hearing (travel information, emergency announcements etc.)

$132,000 for an emergency management person.

$16.2 million adds 80 crew to over the Coast Guard requirements. The justification is having more crew for emergencies and to allow the boat to sail if there’s a no-show. It’s a big ask so it will get scrutiny. Some questions come to mind.

Safety: Minimum crew is determined by what’s needed in an emergency. In 2012 WSF and the USCG jointly reviewed emergency needs and added crew to Jumbo and Super ferries Accident investigations since found that crews were sufficient and performed well. Shouldn’t WSF and the USCG update their crewing study to see what, if any, additional crew are needed?

No shows. When a boat can’t sail for lack of one crew member it’s a big service and revenue loss. Replacements take time to find and to arrive so having extra crew pays off. Last fall we had six boats tied up. While politically difficult why not look at restructuring work agreements to see if some crew members on tied-up boats can be sent to operating boats elsewhere?

Ferries’ $50 million operating and $133 million capital increases are whoppers. Not only that, but $28 million is for projects with ongoing obligations. While supplemental money is normally tight there’s a wrinkle this time. The Climate Control Act (Carbon Tax) has raked in about $1.8 billion. Since it’s costing motorists about 45 cents more per gallon of gas shouldn’t some of that revenue be used for our transportation shortfalls?

Walt Elliott writes a periodic column on Washington State Ferries for this newspaper.