Washington State Ferries (WSF), one of the biggest ferry systems in the world, is scrambling to figure out how to pay for a multi-million dollar mandate from the U.S. Coast Guard to put more personnel on certain boats. The Coast Guard says the increase in minimum staffing levels is needed in case of a catastrophic event. On Wednesday afternoon Gov. Gregoire stepped in to say the state does not have the funding to comply with the order.
“Our priorities are to assure safe and reliable service while maintaining the financial stability of the ferry system. But our system cannot afford any more costs,” said Gregoire.
Ferry officials have determined the new minimum staffing levels will not be cheap. Ferries’ Director, David Moseley, calculates the cost at nearly $10 million through next year alone.
Appeal process available
The KING 5 Investigators have found there is a well defined process to appeal the Coast Guard decision through a system defined in the Code of Federal Regulations. According to the Passenger Vessel Organization (PVA), operations across the country have often challenged such orders.
"It is not unusual at all for an operator to go through the formal appeal process with the Coast Guard. We actively encourage our members to initiate an appeal when there is a Coast Guard decision or ruling with which they disagree," said Beth Gedney, Director of Safety, Security, and Risk Management for the PVA. "As citizens, we have the right to seek open, objective and impartial reconsideration through this process."
It’s unclear if Washington state will pursue an appeal, but Gregoire hinted something must be done.
“The Coast Guard determines staffing levels and our boats can’t sail without their approval, but we must look at ways that address the needs of both safety and cost,” said Gregoire.
For more than 40 years the Coast Guard kept minimum crewing levels the same for ferries in Washington’s fleet. But this month ruled the boats appear to be understaffed in a worst case scenario event.
“WSF operates a large fleet in a demanding and complex operating environment that mandates providing essential resources to further protect the ferries from the low probability but high consequence event of a ferry collision or sinking,” wrote Capt. Ferguson, U.S. Coast Guard, Commander, Sector Puget Sound.
Background on controversy
In 2010 a year-long investigation, “Waste on the Water”, KING exposed millions of wasted tax dollars and inefficiencies at WSF. That led to a series of reforms instituted by the ferry system and the legislature which included a reduction in travel time and mileage for employees, a cut in pay, and fewer overtime opportunities.
The series also led Governor Gregoire to ask for an assessment of the entire system by the Passenger Vessel Association. The group of experts from across the country made 36 recommendations on many aspects of ferry operations. One of them was that WSF should reduce manning levels on certain runs to be in line with like operations in the country and to save millions of tax dollars.
“(A comparison shows) there may be opportunities to reduce crew numbers without compromising safety,” wrote the panel. “The Panel recommends that WSF evaluate current staffing on the vessels versus the same manning required by the (Coast Guard).”
Ferry leaders followed this advice, but got instant backlash from the unions, who said the reductions created unsafe environments. After that the Coast Guard got involved when state and union leaders came to a standstill at the bargaining table on the issue.
Lawmaker blames unions
Senator Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island) believes the Coast Guard caved into pressure from the powerful unions which represent ferry employees.
"I'm disappointed as a citizen, I'm very disappointed as someone who represents people who depend upon (the ferries), and I'm angry as a legislator," said Haugen, who is the state’s top
top transportation lawmaker. “The unions didn’t get their way. And they've gone to the Coast Guard. It reminds me of children that run to Grandma when Mom and Dad say no."
A leader of the Inland Boatman’s Union (IBU) said Haugen is off base. “Senator Haugen has no idea what she’s talking about,” said Dennis Conklin, IBU Puget Sound Regional Director. “We didn’t lobby the Coast Guard. In fact is was State Ferries’ idea to ask the Coast Guard about manning levels, so shame on them. Our bargaining unit chose not to support Sen. Haugen in her current re-election campaign, and she’s mad about it.”
Sen. Haugen says if the Coast Guard decision isn't reversed, the public has can expect a reduction in service. "It's the traveling public and the businesses on both sides of the water, that will pay,” said Haugen. “If there’s no money, what you have to do is cut service and that is totally unacceptable to the people I represent.”
KING 5 has also found representatives from all 11 ferry unions will meet face-to-face with Gov. Gregoire on Thursday morning in Olympia. They’ll be discussing another problem facing the ferry system: the recent rash of cancelled or late sailings due to staff members not showing up for work on time. Sixty boats have skipped their sailings or been delayed from June through October because of staffing issues.
“We cannot afford to have missed sailings and have made it clear that we expect ferry employees to not miss or be late to shifts. Our families, commuters and visitors rely on the system as a vital link and that link must be reliable,” said Gregoire.
Both sides say they hope to come up with solutions at the meeting.