The Mukilteo-Clinton ferry is a priority for restored service

MUKILTEO – A new plan dedicated to restoring ferry service to pre-pandemic levels may bring some hope to passengers on the Mukilteo-Clinton route, who have faced debilitating problems service slashes for many months.

March 8 report of Washington State Ferries outlined the “steps” each route must go through before it is considered restored.

Of the eight routes listed, the Mukilteo-Clinton was ranked third in terms of prioritization. Edmonds-Kingston placed fourth. Port Townsend-Coupeville was the second lowest priority, only ahead of the Anacortes-Sidney BC route which has been suspended since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Itineraries are prioritized based on “traffic, service performance, availability and proximity to travel alternatives, and ship and crew availability,” according to the report.

A route will initially operate on a reduced schedule called “alternate service”. Service levels will be increased on a trial basis if it is determined that the level of crew and vessel resources is appropriate. A route is considered “restored” if it operates at 95% reliability for three weeks.

“Route restoration is when service schedules are restored to seasonally appropriate levels that meet ridership demand, and service meets reliability goals,” the report said.

The Anacortes-San Juan Island route, the first priority, is currently the only one in the ferry system to see full service restored.

The report also details the challenges the system has faced, from aging vessels to staff shortages. One boat, the Tillikum, is due to retire in 2023. The next newest vessel in the fleet, the first Olympic-class hybrid-electric ferry, is not expected to enter service until 2025. With few boats to spare, maintenance routine has become difficult to navigate while maintaining service.

Lack of crew – even the loss of a single person – can prevent a boat from sailing, leading to the cancellation of several voyages. According to the report, the ferry system has 110 fewer employees in January 2022 compared to July 2019. Licensed and unlicensed positions have both suffered shortages.

An increase in COVID-19 cases related to omicron variant led to a total of 7,419 relief requests in January, putting additional pressure on the current pool of workers. Across the four different categories of ship’s crew positions, the ferry system requires a total of 116 workers to meet target levels.

Additionally, baby boomers have begun to retire and more are becoming eligible for retirement each year. According to the report, 14% of the ships’ workforce could retire within three years.

But there are signs that navigation could become smoother. Fifteen people are currently enrolled in the Spring 2022 Orientation for New Mates, which is mandatory training for licensed deck officers. Unlicensed engine room crew, also known as tankers, welcomed 17 new people to their ranks in January.

“Recent new-hire training for engine room workers averaged 12 people per class compared to classes of 3-5 people at the height of the pandemic,” the report said.

At a town hall Saturday, representatives from the 10th Legislative District addressed the issue of improving the schedules for new recruits to help with recruiting.

Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor, stressed ferries are ‘front and center’ in a just-passed $1.6 billion transport package that will help fund the construction of four new electric hybrid boats.

“We’ve been really rolling – no pun intended – Washington State Ferries to make sure they’re continuing recruiting and training and doing everything they can to retain ferry workers,” Paul said. .

Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, pointed out that understaffing issues were happening before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not a 2022 problem,” he said. “It’s probably a problem from five years ago.”

He added that he would have ranked the Mukilteo-Clinton road higher on the report’s priority list, had he had the opportunity.

“In reality,” he said, “the fee you pay to take the ferry goes into operating costs, and the Mukilteo-Clinton (route) is about 85%, which drives the system ferry to reimburse the operating costs, so the ferry is the most profitable route.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Timesa sister publication to The Herald.