The Washington State Ferry system spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to staff a rarely used boat over the past two years, according to an analysis of records conducted by the KING 5 Investigators.
The MV Hiyu, the smallest boat in the WSF fleet, is used only as a back-up when regular boats are unexpectedly pulled from service for repair. Built in 1967, it can carry just 34 cars and lacks amenities like a snackbar, handicapped restrooms, and elevator.
Since January 2012, records show that the Hiyu was used on just 8 days. In 2013, the boat has not been used once.
Over that same period, crew members have been assigned nearly every day to the boat, which is docked at WSF's Eagle Harbor facility. That staffing came at a cost of $710,000 to the ferry system.
Eagle Harbor employee sign-in logs obtained by KING 5 show that a single engineer is typically assigned to work a 12-hour shift on the Hiyu. Records also show a two-man crew is often assigned to the docked boat, and 24/7 staffing occurs at other times.
A source within State Ferries, familiar with the Hiyu, said assigning crew to a boat that almost never sails makes no sense.
"It's excessive, it's baloney, it's wasting money," the employee told us (he asked to remain anonymous because he did not have permission to speak to the media). The employee added: "A lot of guys in the fleet have questioned this for the last few years. In previous years the Hiyu was tied up and when they needed it they called an engineer who knew the boat. It didn't have or need a permanent crew."
“You piqued my interest with this issue. I’m definitely going to look into it. I don’t know if we need a hearing or what but I will make some calls to get to the bottom of this,” said Sen. Joe Fain (R-Auburn) who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee. The committee is one of the budget and policy governing bodies with jurisdiction over state transportation issues such as the operations of State Ferries.
David Moseley, the head of the ferry system, defended the Hiyu staffing, saying there's a long list of tasks that must be carried out to keep the boat serviceable.
Moseley provided a list of the tasks the crew is assigned for December 2013. When KING 5 asked two longtime ferry system employees familiar with the Hiyu to review the tasks, they said most the work was unlikely to be needed. One of the ferry employees compared it to changing the oil in a car -- you wouldn't change the oil if the car was never driven.
Of the 81 maintenance items listed for the assigned crew to perform in December, 2013, 35 of the chores, 43 percent of them, would not be necessary for a boat that is not in-service.
“I’m surprised that we’re staffing a vessel that isn’t used and doesn’t need much maintenance. How can we tell the public that WSDOT is doing the best they can to run an effective and efficient ferry system when you (KING 5) keep finding these examples? I believe to be prudent we need to look into this to see what justification exists for having a boat staffed on a daily basis when it hasn’t been used for a year,” said Senate Transportation Committee Co-Chair, Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima).
But Moseley said the expense was worthwhile, with costs amounting to "about 1 percent of the overall engine labor room cost."
"It's like insurance, I don't like paying for it until I need it, and when I need it I'm glad I paid for it," he said.
WSF's practice of assigning a crew to a back-up boat is not typical of other systems KING 5 contacted. The San Francisco Bay ferry system has several extra boats available at any time, but they are not staffed. Neither the Alaska Marine Highway System nor the British Columbia Ferry Services (BC Ferries) maintain a spare boat at all. They shift around the in-service boats they have when there’s a problem.
"Ferries are expensive. I can't imagine a ferry system that would have the resources to have a boat that is on stand-by with a paid crew," said a spokesperson with the Alaska Marine Highway System.
The state is considering selling the Hiyu in 2014, but until a decision is made Moseley said WSF will continue to staff the boat.
Ferry officials say the Hiyu was seldom needed in 2012 and 2013 because newer boats have been added to the fleet, which means fewer break downs and more boats to shift around when an emergency arises. But in previous years the Hiyu was launched on more occasions.
Here is a year by year break down of the boat’s usage:
2008 - 85 days in service
2009 - 60 days in service
2010 – 25 days in service
2011 – 11 days in service
2012 – 8 days in service
2013 – 0 days in service