State ferries facing costly new staffing mandate

SEATTLE -- A Problem Solvers investigation first exposed the ferries' staffing-related issues which have led to dozens of missed sailings in recent months.

KOMO News has now obtained a new certificate of inspection for the ferry Issaquah. The mandate adds two more crew members to the minimum staffing needed to operate the vessel regardless of the number of passengers on board.

The Issaquah is not the only boat that will be required to operate with more workers on board in case of emergency. The additional staff is being added, to insure there's enough trained people on board, in the event of an emergency. So how much might this mandate cost the state?

"Would be around $5 million per year," said state ferry director David Moseley.

The news is a blow to the ferry system, which is already draining money from other transportation accounts.

"I don't know how the governor's office will react to that in terms of transfers, higher fares or service reductions," said Moseley.

The ferry system's recent troubles have renewed the push for state lawmakers to find a dedicated funding plan for state ferries.

The ferry system has already proposed a reduced schedule; it has asked the Coast Guard to reduce staffing when carrying fewer passengers.

The Problem Solvers obtained a copy of the letter granting that request. For instance, the state will be able to reduce staffing by one when the Issaquah is carrying fewer than 300 passengers.

"We're pleased the Coast Guard does allow us in this letter and their COIs (certificates of inspection) forthcoming will speak to that," said Moseley.

And if for some reason they're staffed at a lower level and more people show up? Moseley said they will have to wait for the next ferry, just like vehicles do now, when the car deck fills up.

One thing the state asked for but didn't get, was extra time to add a licensed position from a previous manning edict. The Coast Guard denied that request. The unions had made it clear that they had qualified people to fill the slots now.

The ferry system's had a rough ride the past five months. A Problem Solvers investigation exposed the cancellation of dozens of runs due to staffing issues.

And now the state has formed a task force with management and labor to look for ways to avoid future cancellations. Moseley said there are no ill feelings.

"We had a disagreement. That disagreement's resolved," he said. "The Coast Guard's ruled. We will live with the Coast Guard's ruling."

State ferries has drained more than $1 billion from other state transportation accounts over the last 12 years.