Lawmakers turn up the heat on troubled ferry system
Mechanical problems, errors and personnel issues are prompting lawmakers and others to discuss how to fix the Washington State Ferries system.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Washington State Ferries (WSF) has grappled with several problems this summer.
No permanent boss: Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson bypassed former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg in June to replace the retired David Moseley as ferries chief. The other finalist, Capt. George Capacci, withdrew but remains interim director.
Scraped deck: Bottoms of some vehicles scraped the deck this spring entering the new ferry Tokitae. Two lawmakers complained in June they were misled by WSF management about the issue.
Sidelined: Steve Rodgers, director of operations, was placed on administrative leave July 3.
Power loss: An electrical failure left the ferry Tacoma dead in the water off Bainbridge Island on July 29. It was towed to the dock.
Underloading: After the Tacoma stall, crews loaded the Walla Walla with only 600 people instead of the allowed 1,200 due to a communication problem.
Life vests on: Passengers aboard the Elwha briefly donned life vests Aug. 3 as a precaution, offshore from Anacortes, after smoke was noticed in an engine room.
Overloading: On Friday, workers boarded 484 more people than allowed onto the ferry Cathlamet, which had to return to Bremerton and unload riders before heading to Seattle.
Boat shortage: The ferry Evergreen State, pulled out of retirement while other ferries are repaired, had its own breakdown Saturday, causing delays on the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth route, before returning to service Monday.
As lawmakers call for hearings and sackings, the head of Washington State Ferries says the public ought to focus on what he calls an unparalleled safety and reliability record.
Capt. George Capacci, interim director, defended his agency Tuesday in the wake of recent problems — including Friday’s overloading of the Seattle-bound Cathlamet, which had to return to Bremerton. Nearly 500 people exited the boat, at the urging of crew and law-enforcement officers.
A boat stall, personnel issues and smoldering electrical parts that prompted passengers to don life vests have also bedeviled the nation’s largest ferry system.
On the other hand, vessels completed 99.5 percent of their scheduled sailings between January and June, slightly better than a year ago, according to the ferry system, which has not yet released numbers for July.
“We are still carrying 450 trips a day, going back and forth across Puget Sound and the Salish Sea,” said Capacci, who moved to Washington from B.C. Ferries in 2009. About 60,000 passengers ride state ferries daily. “The 480 people that got off the Cathlamet, they all got to the (Seahawks) game. They arrived in time for kickoff,” he said.
The incidents have drawn new attention from Gov. Jay Inslee, who asked Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson “to come up with a plan to improve reliability in the system,” said governor’s spokesman David Postman. Inslee also plans to meet with worried lawmakers whose constituents depend on ferries.
Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, and Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, called on Inslee in June to conduct an independent review of ferries management. They say Capacci and other administrators brushed off their questions about ferries that listed, and how the bottoms of cars scraped a new ferry during loading.
Ferry administrators downplayed any problem before eventually reversing course: three listing ferries were leveled using ballast, saving money on fuel; and the ramp troubles will be fixed through partial redesign of new boats. Smith faults Capacci in both incidents.
“I think he has to own the operational decisions that have been made under his watch,” she said.
Seaquist said he hears complaints that ferry workers endure an “incompetent and hostile work environment,” which he blamed for a shortage of masters, mates, deckhands and ticket sellers.
“My view is Capacci is part of the problem with those in leadership,” said Seaquist. “He must go.”
Capacci withdrew from consideration for permanent ferries chief this summer. Peterson passed over the other finalist, former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg. A new search is being conducted.
Asked if lawmakers’ criticism caused him to withdraw, Capacci said, “No, I can stand the heat,” adding he’d like to stay as deputy chief for operations and construction.
The summer tourist season was jolted when the ferry Tacoma lost power July 29 near Bainbridge Island. The vessel was safely towed to port. The stall cut the Seattle-Bainbridge Island route down to one ferry, the Walla Walla. Though the Coast Guard allowed 1,200 aboard, crews loaded only 600 people, aggravating commuter delays.
Capacci said Tuesday he hasn’t yet finished his review of mistakes in the underloading of the Walla Walla, or the overloading of the Cathlamet last week. He attributes the Cathlamet incident to “human error” by crews dealing with the opening week of football crowds.
“What would be a bigger mistake would be to sail over capacity and put anyone at risk,” he said.
A repair plan from Siemens is forthcoming on the Tacoma, whose electrical components are about two decades old.
However, the vessel was due for regular maintenance from October to December. That raises the possibility it’s out until early 2015. “I would rather have that done right than quick,” Capacci said.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, says she believes the system is being affected by the absence of operations director Steve Rodgers, who has been on administrative leave since July 3, during an internal investigation.
“The time frame that they’ve been without an operations director coincides with a lot of the mechanical problems and communication issues,” said Rolfes.
There’s been no permanent ferries chief since David Moseley retired in April; an engineering director and senior port captain position are vacant.
As for critiques the system is mismanaged, Capacci pointed to the 60-year-old Evergreen State, which broke down Saturday. It was restored to the Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth triangle route Monday after mechanics worked all day Sunday, he said.
“Does that kind of thing happen for an organization that doesn’t have some management, or intelligent life at work? I don’t think so,” he said.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, mentioned the idea Monday of the Legislature authorizing an independent review.
“We can’t continue to operate this system the way it’s been operating the last few months and few years,” said King, co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, said a legislative review shouldn’t be necessary to fix poor customer service.
“The ferries’ customer service these last few weeks has been appalling,” said Hansen. “They are a long ways from the Nordstrom-level of customer service.”
Members of the Ferry Advisory Committee said boats built in the 1950s and 1960s shouldn’t be expected to operate without significant maintenance.
“Part of the problem is we don’t have a regular vessel-replacement program in place,” said Rex Nelson, who represents Southworth on the committee. Some of the new replacement boats are too small to serve the primary routes, he added.
Capacci said what the agency needs from the Legislature is funding to hire 81 employees, and capital funds to maintain and replace aging boats.
Nelson points to last year’s stalled transportation package in the Legislature, which would have created a sustainable source of ferry funds.
“You’ve got a certain number of boats that have to be replaced every couple of years,” he said, “because the boats are getting old.”
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said that if the ferry system wants to ask the public for tax increases, it will have to straighten out problems he sees with employees.
“It’s giving a black eye to some really good ferry workers out there,” Orcutt said.
Capacci said the run of problems this summer is unprecedented, though the breakdowns aren’t surprising in an old fleet.
He argued ferry problems attract notice because riders are so used to boats that run on time, and for some people are the most dependable part of their day.