Ferry adds Web capability

With the click of a computer mouse, travelers can now find where Pierce County's only active ferry is sailing.

An up-to-the-minute map on the county’s Web site also tells visitors which direction the MV Christine Anderson is moving, as well as its estimated arrival and departure times.

The Web feature is the latest upgrade in a package of improvements the county has made to its ferry system over the last few months.

The goal: increased safety and efficiency.

In addition to a GPS tracking system, the county added software that identifies other vessels in the ferry’s vicinity between Steilacoom, Anderson and Ketron Islands. It installed 14 cameras around terminals, two of which are streamed live on the Web so customers can see how many cars are waiting to board.

The improvements cost $104,000. A federal Homeland Security grant paid for $60,000; Pierce County Public Works and Utilities’ ferry budget covered the rest.

So far, the public has provided positive feedback on the new technology, according to Michael Esher, the county’s airport and ferry administrator.

He said he got the idea of a ferry tracking system from his experience in aviation. Airports offer similar technology.

“We didn’t invent anything,” Esher said. “We just incorporated it into a smaller mode of transportation.”

Washington State Ferries also offers tracking on its Web site, and its vessels have upgraded GPS technology.

In the last few months, Pierce County ferry operators have noticed a more balanced flow of vehicles using the boat rather than large crushes during rush hour.

The county estimates it carries 200,000 riders every year on the Steilacoom-Anderson-Ketron Island route.

“Depending on the time of day, you can run into traffic,” said Steve Caputo, transportation operations supervisor. “This allows them to check, and they could say, ‘There aren’t as many cars as I thought there would be. Let’s go earlier.’ ”

Pierce County also has equipped the vessel with warning devices and an automated system to help operators monitor parts of the boat and catch potential mechanical breakdowns, Caputo said.

“It’s a monitoring system for all the vital systems on the boat,” he said. “It will tell you if the boat is taking on too much water, whether the shaft is too hot, things like that.”

Puget Sound-area residents have learned firsthand in recent years how ferry complications can bring daily commutes to a halt. Washington State Ferries suffered a series of breakdowns, including on the Point Defiance-Tahlequah run.

Esher said even though Pierce County’s system operated effectively before the technological improvements, the upgrades make its job easier and better for riders.

The county is now working on upgrades that will allow Anderson Island students who attend class in Steilacoom to use student I.D. cards for ferry admission rather than paper tickets.

Esher said he wants Pierce County’s ferry eventually to accept the ORCA card, already accepted by transit agencies in Pierce, King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties.

Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653