Politics & Government

Generally positive marks for ferries

SEATTLE – An independent panel gave generally good marks to Washington state's ferry system, but also suggested recommendations ranging from how to save money to how to unload bicycles from boats, according to a study released Thursday.

The study by the Passenger Vessel Association was commissioned in March by Gov. Chris Gregoire, who recruited five experts from other U.S. ferry services for the review of the nation’s largest ferry system. The governor asked the industry organization to help cut costs and improve efficiency.

The panel praised the system for its safety and on-time records, but said that some standard practices “are outside the norm for the majority of ferry operators.”

It found that the system “suffers from excessive oversight,” having to answer to the state Department of Transportation, the Transportation Commission and the Legislature. Most other ferry systems report to a board of directors or one entity that gives them greater autonomy and ability to make important business decisions, the report said.

The panel also said the Legislature should establish a dedicated funding source for boat construction, and that the Transportation Department should seek boat-building bids nationwide, not just from within the state.

Among the study’s 36 recommendations, it suggested that the system reduce the number of engineers and designers on capital projects, study whether it makes sense financially to have engineroom crews staff boats 24 hours a day or work when the boat is in a shipyard, and examine how many crew members should be working when there are fewer passengers on board.

Gregoire said she has told state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond and ferry system head David Moseley to determine by Nov. 15 which of the panel’s recommendations they plan to put into effect.

Both Hammond and Moseley said the report was helpful.

“It examines a number of issues we’ve struggled with and some new ideas,” Moseley said. The system will consult with ferry riders before changing any services, he said, and will work with employees to reduce operating costs.

Other suggestions that would directly affect ferry riders include:

Giving the system authority to set fares, and consider yearly automatic fare increases, rather than large boosts. Fares currently are set by the state Transportation Commission.

Setting strict cut-off times for loading boats. Waiting for stragglers not only delays departures, the panel said, but also annoys those who get there on time.

Unloading cars before bicycles. The current practice of letting bicycles off first slows down drivers as they leave the boats and terminals, and creates a safety hazard when cars try to pass bikes down the road.

Separately, the state Auditor’s Office issued a performance report Thursday on the ferry division, saying that despite improvements, its timekeeping and payroll processes still are inadequate and should be replaced.

The audit found the current systems hinder good decision making, and did not support compliance with collective bargaining agreements.