Wednesday, June 24, 2020

How COVID-19 is affecting our state ferries

By Bryn Vander Stoep

It is an understatement to say that COVID-19 has greatly affected "normal life." From canceled plans to wearing masks at the grocery store, everything seems to be operating in a world of constant change.

Our ferries division is not immune to COVID-19. In late March, our total ridership bottomed off at the lowest levels we've seen since the 1960s, down more than 75% from 2019.

In response to the decreased demand, we reduced service and extended our winter sailing schedules indefinitely. We continue to encourage riders to take essential trips only, to stay in their vehicles if possible, and to physically distance from others on our ferries and at our terminals to keep everyone safe.

Now we're seeing an uptick in ridership. Ferries are a popular way to travel in the summer. But this is not a normal summer season, as we are still operating under our COVID Response Service Plan and cannot operate full "normal" service.
Like most things, COVID-19 has had a significant affect on our ferry service
as we work to adjust to new normal.

Current service levels depend on the following constraints:
  • Crew availability: More than 100 of our crewmembers are considered "high-risk" for COVID-19 and are working remotely for health and safety reasons. Before a new employee can serve as a crewmember on one of our vessels, they must go through weeks of intensive training, which includes firefighting, personal safety and survival, classroom time and job duty familiarization out in our fleet. Due to COVID-19, we were unable to conduct any of these face-to-face new deck employee orientations until June. Without enough crew to fill all the Coast Guard-mandated slots on our vessels, maintaining our current level of service has become a significant challenge.
  • Ridership: Ridership remains at historic lows and while the Governor's "Safe Start" plan is still in place, demand for transit service remains low. As more restrictions are lifted, we anticipate more riders will come back to the ferries. It is a little difficult to predict at what rate they will return, but we know that there will be more demand for service as we move through the Governor's four-phased reopening plan.
  • Vessels: The number of boats that are available also dictate our ability to provide service. Our maintenance facility was required to suspend activity for several weeks because of the Governor's "Stay Home" directive; as a result, crews were unable to conduct important maintenance on the vessels and there is now a backlog of work that needs to be completed. So without a full fleet due to a combination of planned and unplanned maintenance, we cannot operate a full schedule.
  • Funding: We cannot increase our level of service without the funding to operate that service. With decreased ridership, fare revenues have also decreased. All transportation revenue streams continue to experience significant declines as a result of the global pandemic. We're still learning how our budget will be affected in the short- and long-term.
As countless others have done, we've adjusted our way of doing business to keep people safe and healthy during this pandemic. Through it all, ferry crew members work the front line, implementing disease-prevention protocols and making sure our neighbors can safely travel across the Salish Sea each day for work, school, medical appointments and other essential trips. We know these adjustments aren't easy, and we appreciate your patience and grace as we navigate keeping travelers and staff safe.


Erik said...

> Our maintenance facility was required to suspend activity for several weeks because of the Governor's "Stay Home" directive;

Seems odd. Is ferry maintenance not "essential", like fixing failing bridges?

Unknown said...

Would you consider giving nurses, doctors front line staff priority for walk on?

WSDOT said...

Hey Unknown, thanks for the suggestion. Unfortunately, it would be hard to verify priority boarding for healthcare workers and may slow down the boarding process.

Patty from Orcas Island said...

Would you please consider making the San Juan Island Wave 2 Go pass good for 5 months instead of 3? Most of us are not wanting to make unnecessary trips off island.
We are having 30 minute to 4 hour waits up here plus ferries being cancelled. People are starting to flock to the islands. I was told by a WSF state person that is leading to extra time to load the ferries and contributing to long wait times.

Patty from Orcas Island

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