New schedule shows results, but ferry frustration continues in Kingston

KINGSTON — Unlike most Kingston commuters, Maryann Harris' job lets her choose what time she leaves her work in Seattle each afternoon.

But faced with hours-long wait times in Edmonds and afternoon ferries to Kingston struggling to stay on time, she still can't determine what time she'll get home.

"Unless I get out of there at three, it's not a guarantee that I'll get home at a reasonable hour," Harris said.

Though a slimmed-down schedule helped ferries run more on time on the Kingston route this summer, commuters are still frustrated by long backups and a loss of sailings. A small group of riders aired their angst in a discussion with Washington State Ferries staff in a Tuesday meeting at the Kingston Community Center.

"Given the choice, I'd rather be 10 minutes late instead of two boats behind," Harris said, to the agreement of most in the crowd.

Ferries did make strides toward keeping boats on time this summer, after implementing a schedule that spread out sailing times, giving boats more time to load and unload. Kingston has ranked among the worst in the system for on-time performance.

In August this year, 75 percent of sailings left within five minutes of their scheduled departure times, compared to 50 percent in 2009, according to figures provided by Ferries Planning Director Ray Deardorf. Ninety percent left within 10 minutes of their scheduled departures.

One of the biggest improvements was made in the afternoon commuting hours. Between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. 62 percent of ferries were leaving within five minutes of scheduled departure between June 20 and Labor Day, compared to 28 percent in 2009.

There are still problem boats. The busy 6:15 p.m. sailing from Edmonds left the dock within five minutes of its scheduled departure 23 percent of the time.

Riders said the gains in on-time performance came at the price of service.

Several said traffic backups have been longer in both Kingston and Edmonds. State Ferries is monitoring backups in Kingston with new sensors on State Route 104. But it doesn't have data on backups from 2009 to compare it to Deardorf said.

Another large concern was the loss of the 5:50 p.m. departure from Edmonds, a popular commuter boat. The new schedule has departures at 5:25 p.m. and 6:15 p.m. Cooper said the 5:25 departure is too early for many commuters to catch, while the 6:15 gets them home late, especially when its running late.

"Your numbers, whether you slice them or dice them, look a little better than they did before," Cooper said. "But they didn't accomplish what you wanted."

Moving forward

Schedule tweaks aren't the only strategy State Ferries has tried to restore order on the Kingston route.

Ferries Senior Shoreside Manager Doug Schlief, who oversees terminal operations, said he has worked with traffic control officers in Edmonds to move cars down from the upper holding lot more quickly. The agency also ground down the humps on either side of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway in Edmonds, which have slowed cars as they load and unload.

Schlief's staff tested using the third loading lane in Edmonds, instead of the usual two, for about two weeks over the summer, he said. The idea was scrapped because it did not speed up loadings and was blocked access to the dock for motorcycles and emergency vehicles.

Trains are another headache at the Edmonds terminal. Burlington Northern trains pass through Edmonds at unpredictable times, blocking the lanes between the ferry terminal and its upper holding lot. Schlief said he met with Burlington Northern officials and was told they wouldn't be able to alter their schedules and can't predict when trains will enter Edmonds.

Schlief was more encouraged by the possibility of changing traffic and pedestrian lights in Edmonds to speed up offloading. Ferries will work with the state Department of Transportation and the City of Emonds to see what changes to the lights can be made.

Riders had plenty more suggestions for ferries staff.

Several said crews onboard the ferries don't appear to work with urgency and asked what incentives Ferries could give them to load and unload on time. Kingston resident Mark Libby displayed a diagram of the wide range of routes ferries take across the sound and suggested Ferries staff look into tightening sailing patterns.

Kingston Ferry Advisory Committee member Rex Carlaw suggested "speed loading" — loading cars in bulk, based on rough space estimates, instead of trickling cars onboard to every space on the deck. Speed loading is already used on the Vashon, Fauntleroy, Southworth route.

"That's not off the table," Deardorf said.

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