Thanks to WSF, you still can’t get there from here

Sound Off is a public forum. Articles are selected from letters to the editor or may be written specifically for this feature. Today, Scott St. Clair, a freelance writer and activist currently working as an investigative reporter for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, documents ongoing problems with the Washington State Ferries system.

Among the iconic images of Washington state, those of the state’s quaint green-and-white ferry boats have no peer – like Mount Rainier, the Space Needle, and pods of Orcas, the charm exuded by these double-ended vessels serenely crossing Puget Sound or knitting small communities in the San Juan Islands to the world is the stuff of which the dreams of tourism officials are made.

The reality is less dream and more nightmare, however.

Made clear from news reports, public records, conversations with Washington State Ferries system insiders and other maritime experts, there are deep, serious, and systemic issues with this critical portion of the state’s highway system.

It’s prophetic that you can’t tell the bow from the stern on a ferry, since WSF, the nation’s largest ferry system, doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going – or who’s responsible for today’s situation.

The issues are many, complex, and inter-related — too many, in fact, to address in one article.

Take last November’s fiasco with the four 80-year-old Steel Electric-class ferries, the Quinault, Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually. After receiving United States Coast Guard Certificates of Inspection attesting to their fitness and seaworthiness anywhere from six to 11 months beforehand, they were abruptly pulled from service on the Keystone (Whidbey Island)-Port Townsend run just prior to Thanksgiving, 2007, by new Washington state Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond, a Gov. Christine Gregoire appointee.

According to news reports, Hammond beached the 59- to 64-car vessels because of safety concerns and fears of pre-emptive Coast Guard action.

This dramatic and unprecedented action came despite a barely three-week-old assurance from WSF officials to the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee that the Steel Electrics were “generally considered to be in good condition.”

Talk about an abrupt about-face.

Why? Was something amiss in the Coast Guard COIs? Did WSF all of a sudden discover massive safety issues previously unknown to it?

Was there an unforeseen cataclysmic event necessitating such jarring action?

At best, the answer is murky and seems to be that nobody knows.

To weigh into the Steel Electric morass raises more questions than are answered. What it does do, however, is cast a deep and abiding pall upon the ferry system as a whole.

This isn’t to say that the decision to pull the Steel Electrics from service wasn’t proper. It’s just that it’s hard to tell.

Hammond made the call after WSF employees fully examined only one vessel, the Quinault. She then extrapolated what was found on that vessel to the other three without having them fully inspected.

How long does it take the Washington State Department of Transportation with its $5.9 billion capital and operations budget to get something done?

When does the state Legislature demand and force action and independently go about getting answers to what are by now obvious questions, in this case about WSF?

In a recent Everett Herald story, State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), chair of the powerful Senate Transportation Committee with jurisdiction over WSDOT and WSF, expressed outrage late last year over the 52-card-pickup nature of the Steel Electric situation.

Claiming that “people should lose their jobs” as a result of the mess, she then copped out of any responsibility claiming ignorance on the part of the Legislature. “You’ve got to understand, we’re citizen legislators. We’re not engineers,” the Herald quotes her as saying.

Then isn’t it about time you hired, or at least consulted, some?

With WSF in serious vessel-reliability straits and suffering from huge credibility gaps, is it wise at all for Haugen, her State House counterpart Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), and the Legislature at large to put faith in anything that emanates from WSF?

And it’s not as though this is new since Thanksgiving of last year. Where again are those new boats you authorized back in 2001?

Shouldn’t this also apply to everyone in state government from the governor’s office through to Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag? While his office did perform an impressive and valuable Initiative 900 performance audit on WSF last year, perhaps today’s changed situation demands something sharper and more detailed in nature?

Like a thorough look at WSF from the inside of the books out?

If the same people keep telling you the same things with the same results, isn’t there a point at which you either ask different people or ask different questions of different people?

We’re left wondering, was the decision to pull the Steel Electrics from service based upon the best information obtainable, or was it more like the baseball outfielder who initially badly misreads a routine fly ball and then has to dive to make a dramatic catch at the last possible second that shows up that evening on ESPN?

Why were maintenance and vessel preservation issues that took years, if not decades, to develop, and that precipitated Secretary Hammond’s decision, not clearly identified and addressed long, long ago?

Where are those new boats again? And the legislative oversight that goes with them?

Until there are firm answers to these and other questions, it will be very rough sailing for Washington State Ferries.

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