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Washington State Ferry service remains below pre-pandemic levels

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(The Center Square) – The Washington State Ferry System still has a long way to go to get back to pre-pandemic levels, and a report presented Wednesday to the Washington State Transportation Commission shows just how many metrics the system as a whole is still behind the curve on.

“Recent unexpected retirements, resignations and protected leaves of absence have caused attrition to outpace our recruiting and training efforts, especially among licensed vessel crews. Because of this crewing situation, as well as vessel availability constraints, we will not be able to trial pre-pandemic three-boat weekday service on our Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth route until early next year,” read the WSF newsletter last Thursday preceding the release of the report.

The newsletter went on to highlight the “updated timeline” for route restoration, noting it would have knock-on effects for restoring the Seattle/Bremerton route as well.

Wednesday’s report started off with the positives.

The Evergreen State’s marine highway since 1951, the Washington State Ferry system has 10 routes, 20 terminals, 21 vessels, and 1800 employees across eight counties, making it the largest system of its kind anywhere in the country.

From Jan.1, 2023, until May 31, 2023, the network has moved 6,887,863 passengers and 3,552,147 vehicles across 312,557 service miles for a total of 58,273 completed trips.

Unfortunately, that’s where the highlights end.

Presented by WSF Director of Planning, Customer, and Government Relations John Vezina, the report shifted focus to the three main areas of concern, ridership, crew availability and service restoration.

As far as ridership, the seven-day rolling average is currently sitting at a high point of 55,000 passengers for May of 2023, the most recent data. This is compared to an average of 70,000 passengers, peaking at around 75,000 mid-month in May of 2019.

This is still higher than the 25,000 average in May of 2020.

Staffing levels are also still a concern.

Despite increases in staffing across the board since numbers were run last in January 2023, every category still falls short of WSF target staffing levels.

With licensed deck captains and mates being 12.5% below target levels and licensed chief and assistant engineers being 7.5% below target levels, it’s no surprise that the third area of concern isn’t doing well either.

Service restoration priority is listed as follows;

Anacortes/San Juan IslandsSeattle/BainbridgeMukilteo/ClintonEdmonds/KingstonFauntleroy/Vashon Island/SouthworthSeattle/BremertonPort Townsend/CoupevilleAnacortes/Sidney BC

The most recent of those, the Edmonds/Kingston route, was restored to full pre-pandemic service levels in February of 2023.

Unfortunately, that leaves the bottom four on the list with their timelines pushed out even further.

The first two, Fauntleroy/Vashon Island/Southworth and Seattle/Bremerton, are expected to be restored to full service in early 2024.

The Port Townsend/Coupeville route will follow shortly thereafter with full service restoration coming in spring of 2024.

Unfortunately for international travelers who like to take the scenic route, the Anacortes/Sidney, B.C. route isn’t currently operating even at reduced service levels. Full service isn’t expected to be restored until sometime in 2030.

Further information about the Washington State Ferry system can be found on WSDOT’s website.

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