By Larry Persily

Wrangell Sentinel

The Washington State Ferries system still has not returned to its full pre-pandemic schedule, coming up short due to fewer riders, an inability to recruit, hire and train onboard crew, high rates of retirements and resignations, and a “lack of vessels due to unanticipated breakdowns and an aging fleet.”

Some sailings have been canceled for lack of crew, and a few routes are running at reduced service.

It sounds a lot like the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The Washington state system, which has been around since 1951, 12 years older than Alaska’s ferry service, has 21 operable ships, down from 24 just four years ago, said John Vezina, director of planning, customer and government relations.

It’s similar to Alaska, which has sold or scrapped four of its vessels in the past five years.

Washington needs a minimum of 19 vessels to maintain a full summer schedule in Puget Sound, Vezina said. But it’s challenging. There are not enough drydocks in the area to work on all the ferries in the winter, so some ships get pulled from service during the summer.

And, like Alaska which operates two ships more than 40 years old, some of Washington’s vessels date back to the 1960s and 1970s. “We have to spend money to keep those going,” said Vezina, a former Alaskan who is well familiar with the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Washington went a decade without building any new ships, 2000-2010. It was a self-inflicted wound. “Washington does a lot by (voter) referendum,” Vezina explained. A 1999 anti-tax ballot initiative abolished the state fee for vehicle tags — the revenues had gone to the ferries. “We lost all our dedicated funding,” Vezina said.

The ballot initiative was later declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, but lawmakers responded by repealing the tax anyway.

Motor fuel taxes help fund the Washington Department of Transportation, but as people drive less, drive more fuel-efficient vehicles or drive electric vehicles, motor fuel sales — and tax revenues — are in decline, according to state reports. That’s even with a tax of 49.4 cents a gallon, the third highest in the nation. The state tax rate in Alaska is eight cents a gallon, unchanged in 53 years.

It wasn’t until 2018 that Washington launched a new ferry, and the next new ship will not join the fleet until 2027, at the earliest, Vezina said.

Another similarity between the two states’ ferry systems is wanting to keep ship construction jobs at home. Alaska has in the past forsaken the competitive bidding required to use federal dollars, giving all its work to the shipyard in Ketchikan. Washington did much the same. “We have a build-in-Washington law,” Vezina said, which precludes opening the work to out-of-state yards at the cost of lost federal funding.

The Washington Legislature has relented a bit and given some flexibility to the ferries to send work out of state, he said.

The two ferry systems are substantially different in their job, crew numbers and distances covered. Whereas Alaska’s routes can last days, with staterooms for passengers, all of Washington’s ferries run short trips around Puget Sound, all under an hour.

Washington’s onboard crew totals about 1,700, roughly four times the size of Alaska, but the two share in common a shortage of workers in most every job category on the ships.

Salaries are not that far apart. The starting wage for a first-year ordinary seaman, a deck worker aboard the vessels, is $25.66 an hour in Washington versus $28.42 for the Alaska Marine Highway, effective July 1 under their respective union contracts.

Washington workers, however, are due for a substantial raise under their contract effective July 1, 2024, to $27.20 an hour, narrowing the pay gap with Alaska, where an ordinary seaman will go to $29.24 under their contract next year.

The two systems share in common a decline in ridership, even as travel picks up post-pandemic. As of July 9, Washington’s passenger loads were still down about 25% from their 2019 peak. Ridership ranged between 22 million and 25 million a year between 2002-2019.

In Alaska, however, ridership on the Southeast ferries plummeted from 372,000 passengers in 1992 to 152,000 in pre-pandemic 2019, and still have not recovered anywhere close to that level.

The inability to fully staff the ships is part of the reason for reduced service. Alaska lost almost two ferry crew members to retirement and resignation for every new hire 2020 through 2022, according to the state Department of Transportation. Washington did better, though it added only a net gain of 61 new hires last year after accounting for crew who left the job.

Vezina, who has been with the Washington State Ferries for about seven years, said management has been telling legislators for years “we have a silver tsunami coming,” as older workers retire. Half of the system’s senior officers will be retiring within the next five years, he said.

To fight the tide, Washington pays for new-hire training for U.S. Coast Guard certification and goes into middle schools and high schools to talk up maritime jobs, Vezina said.

“There is a lack of respect for the trades,” he said of the reluctance of some jobseekers to work for the ferries. “There is a general lack of emphasis on our maritime careers.”