Ferry slowdown could cut costs, help environment

Kitsap County residents depend on the Washington State Ferries system as a vital link to work, social activities and other resources across Puget Sound.  - Justine Frederiksen/Staff Photo
Kitsap County residents depend on the Washington State Ferries system as a vital link to work, social activities and other resources across Puget Sound.
— image credit: Justine Frederiksen/Staff Photo

The Washington State Ferries system could save millions of dollars and lessen the system's environmental impact by imposing an 11 percent decrease in boat speed, according to two officers on the Bainbridge Island route.

The decrease would require a readjustment of schedules and result in a ripple effect on the area’s commuting structure. Nevertheless, supporters of the idea feel that commuters would accept the idea and accommodate the inconvenience when they are made aware of the ecological and economic advantages.

“I’ve shown these numbers personally to (Transportation Committee Chairwoman) Judy Clibborn, and handed a copy to a governor's aide,” said Deck Officer Dan Twohig, who has made the idea something of a personal crusade. “A lot of people are wondering why we aren’t doing this already.”

The estimate of the savings came from a study conducted by the WSF Port Engineer's Office last year. Twohig, a deck officer on the Wenatchee, later conducted his own “rough fuel analysis” that calculated a decrease of speed from the current 18.5 knots to 16 knots would save approximately $2 million per boat per year at a $3 per gallon fuel cost.

The savings would rise as the price of fuel increases.

Twohig also estimated the Wenatchee and other boats of its class produce 8,786 pounds of greenhouse gases and particulates per hour at the 18.5 knot speed.

This compares to 6,000 pounds at 16 knots, which represents reduction of 2,786 pounds of greenhouse pollutants per hour (18 million pounds per ship, per year), he calculates.

Ferry administration sources say the slowdown idea is under consideration. Actual testing, however, will not occur until later this year, and will begin on the Kingston-Edmunds and Mukilteo-Clinton routes.

WSF is reluctant to experiment with the Bainbridge-Seattle route, where it would make the most difference, so as to not upset the area's commuter ecosystem – especially during rush hour.

“There’s no doubt we can save money by slowing down the boats,” said WSF Chief Naval Architect Doug Russell. “But we don’t want to slow down during peak commuting times. If we change the schedules it will cause a ripple effect on our commuters. We need to take a cumulative look at the entire system.”

Any schedule change will upset what Kitsap Transit Service Development Director John Clauson calls “a jigsaw puzzle” that commuters depend on for daily transportation.

If a boat changes its arrival time, then the feeder buses need to follow suit. It would take some planning to modify all the schedules, and the change would influence countywide transit times.

Clauson said that Kitsap Transit "wouldn't be pleased" if WSF instituted an hourly schedule on Bainbridge, due to the necessity of rescheduling its entire fleet to accommodate a later boat. And from initial research, such a move would increase idle time for the buses at the beginning and end of each route.

Such a change would have a greater effect for buses feeding into Bremerton, which now run on an hourly schedule. “People are used to catching buses at the same point every hour,” he said. “It might be confusing for them to readjust.”

But Wenatchee Captain Steve Hopkins thinks shifting to an hourly schedule on the Bainbridge run will actually be simpler, since ferry riders will know exactly when a boat is leaving without having to refer to the schedule.

Currently, the Bainbridge Ferries have a 50 minute "dwell time," which includes a 30 minute crossing and 20 minutes in each dock. Hopkins estimates that alowing down would add two to three minutes to the crossing. An additional 10 minutes in the dock would accommodate for locked cars, medical emergencies and all those other little delays with which ferry users a are accustomed.

Testing the slowdown on the northern Puget Sound routes is a step in the right direction, Hopkins said, but won't provide the needed data or savings.

Both runs are short and not as crowded as the Bainbridge flagship.

According to WSF data, the Bremerton run is already estimated to achieve savings of $1.5 million per year by reducing speed by 1 knot, which would lengthen the crossing time by 4.6 minutes.

Bremerton boats run less frequently, so fewer scheduling changes would be required.

Or, on the other hand, commuters could be even less tolerant of further delays.

The Southworth-Vashon-Fauntleroy ferry is expected to show similar savings, but would probably require a schedule change. In a shorter crossing the savings are potentially lower, but every little bit helps.

And the greatest savings come when a vessel decreases from maximum speed, what Hopkins calls “the top of the horsepower curve.”

“This isn’t going to fix a $6 billion deficit,” Hopkins said. “We’re just giving them one tool in the toolbox needed to fix the system.”

Hopkins predicted Bainbridge commuters would accept the schedule changes when they see the advantages of money saved and the environment saved – especially when compared to the possibility of more severe cutbacks.

“There is the idea that Bainbridge Island commuters will flip out when they hear about this idea,” Hopkins said. “But if it is spun properly, the riders will support it, since it causes less pollution and costs less money.”

Legislators have at least heard of the proposal, and it is one option that will be considered as part of the citizen-motivated “Plan C” strategy now under development.

“Slowing the ferries slightly on some routes may provide significant savings in fuel costs,” said Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor) “I’ll push for those changes and many others in an effort to build a better and much more efficient ferry system.”

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