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November 18, 2010

WSF takes ferry experts advice, up to a point

Though Washington State Ferries (WSF) says it will work to implement a majority of 36 recommendations made by an independent expert panel to improve ferry operations, it is not rushing to deal with one suggestion: that it puts bids for new ferries out to nationwide competition.

Washington State Ferries's problems in providing adequate ferry capacity got a lot worse back in 2007 when it found its beautiful but 80 year old quartet of Steel Electric class vessels had, essentially, rusted out under it.

Since then the ferry system, a unit of Washington State Department of Transportation, has been through all kinds of vessel procurement traumas that have been well documented and that have clearly put a stress on ferry system funding

Back in March, Governor Christine Gregoire asked the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) to conduct a review of how well WSF has implemented changes recommended by past system reviews and audits, and to make further recommendations for efficiency improvements. The PVA is the leading national organization for public and private ferry and other passenger-vessel agencies and businesses. A national expert review panel met six times this summer to review WSF and complete a report.

Among its recommendations:bid ferry newbuilding contracts nationwide.

"The approach of vessel construction that is restricted to shipyards within Washington State is unique to WSF. The panel believes that the argument about building ferries within the state to maintain the industrial base that supports WSF's fleet ignores the fact that new vessel construction is very different from vessel maintenance and repair. Based on their collective experience in purchasing and operating vessels, the panel believes that WSF is paying a high price for requiring in'Aeestate construction," says the panel's report.

Apart from narrowing competition, the instate requirement precludes WSF from applying for or receiving any federal funding to assist with vessel construction.

This is a bullet that WSF clearly does not wish to bite on. In a response and action plan presented to the Governor's Office In a response and action plan presented to the Governor's Office, WSF says:

"While WSF appreciates the logic behind this recommendation, it believes a change in policy at this time is unnecessary. Since the contracts for the current new construction cycle have already been issued, a change in this policy could not be implemented until the next construction cycle, which is 15 years away. Therefore, since new vessel construction circumstances could be very different in 2025, the ferry system recommends tabling this recommendation until the next cycle of new construction activity."

For the most part, though, WSF will work to implement the majority of the recommendations, including:

Making vessel captains management's representative on the ferries.

Improving accident- and injury-prevention measures for passengers and crews.

Improving ways to measure success in areas such as customer satisfaction, on-time performance, and cost efficiency.

Ensuring that staffing on the vessels is appropriate for the number of passengers being carried.

Imposing a systemwide, two-minute loading cut-off before sailings.

Requiring staff to meet new customer-service standards.

Recommendations that WSF says will require further analysis include:

Changing from a state-run agency to a different type of governance.

Consolidating and expediting shipyard work to reduce vessel out-of-service time.

Using pricing or other strategies to manage demand, such as peak-period pricing or off-peak discounts.

WSF does not concur with a few of the recommendations, including:

Reducing the staff hours of the engine-room crew. It is more cost-effective to have engine-room crews perform vessel maintenance and repairs during evening tie-ups than dispatching crews from WSF's Eagle Harbor Maintenance Facility to do that work or bringing the vessels to Eagle Harbor.

Adding a second and third shift at Eagle Harbor to perform vessel maintenance and repairs. WSF has examined this option in the past and determined that it is not feasible, effective or financially beneficial, given issues such as the wide geographic distribution of the system and noise ordinances on Bainbridge Island (where Eagle Harbor is located).

The Governor's Office will review the report and may provide further direction to WSF.

The PVA panel report and the WSDOT response and action plan, are available at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/accountability.


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