Elaine Thompson, File, Associated Press
SEATTLE — The green-and-white ferry pulled away from the docks and churned across Puget Sound, leaving behind Seattle's waterfront. Passengers stood in the breeze on the deck or gazed out of the windows at the distant, snow-covered bulk of Mount Rainier.
Then the lights inside flickered, the engine stalled and the ferry was adrift with more than 400 people onboard.
The July 29 breakdown was the start of a tough summer for the nation's largest ferry system, which hauls about 23 million passengers — commuters, locals and tourists alike — among the islands, peninsulas and mainland cities of western Washington state.
Officials are wondering whether the series of problems is just coincidence, or a more troubling sign of how deeply the state has cut into a transportation system that is a major economic driver and lifeline for many communities.
"The term 'fragile' has come up many times," said Washington State Ferries spokeswoman Marta Coursey. "We're OK, as long as everything works 24-7 and there are no major mishaps."
After the ferry Tacoma stalled near Bainbridge Island, another ferry diverted to help, pulling it away from shore until two tug boats could bring it into the dock.
A few days later, smoke in the engine room of another vessel prompted the captain to have everyone don life jackets — the first time in recent memory such an order had been given.
Last week, a ferry returned to the dock at Bremerton after the captain realized crews had allowed onboard an extra 484 people, many of them Seattle Seahawks football fans on their way to an exhibition game.
Personnel issues are also posing challenges. The ferry system has been without a director since the last one left in April. It says it needs dozens more employees. Sailings can wind up being canceled when workers call in sick, because the agency is so short-staffed there's sometimes no one to cover. The Coast Guard won't let the vessels depart without adequate crews.
Another top executive, operations director Steve Rodgers, has been on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons. His son, a former ferries ticket seller, is appealing his termination for taking $529 from a work account.
A human-resources consultant wrote that the handling of his case smacks of nepotism. Unlike some prior incidents of theft by ferries workers, the matter was not referred to law enforcement.
State Sen. Curtis King, a Republican who co-chairs the Senate's Transportation Committee, said mechanical failures can be expected in an aging fleet and trouble him less than the overloading of the ferry Cathlamet.
The boat's capacity was 1,200, but crews thought it was 1,600. A total of 1,684 were allowed on.
"We need to figure out what's going on and who's running the ferry system and how many of these problems are preventable," he said. "This system is critical to thousands of people, and it's part of our highway system."
Transportation Department officials said the spate of incidents was unprecedented and unfortunately timed, with other ferries already out of service for maintenance. But they also note that the ferries remain reliable.
As of mid-August, the vessels had completed 99.5 percent of their scheduled sailings this year — same as last year.
Gov. Jay Inslee has nevertheless directed the Transportation Department to come up with a plan for improving reliability.
Washington State Ferries operates 10 routes, including to British Columbia, with 22 vessels, some of which date back to the 1950s. It has an operating budget of $242 million, with fares covering 70 percent.
It's been without a sustainable source of money since voters cut the state's motor-vehicle excise tax to $30 in 1999. That forced the ferries system to raise fares, cut service and reduce costs by more than $40 million per year.
One new 144-car vessel has been delivered this year, with two more on order.
Rep. Drew Hansen, a Bainbridge Island Democrat who takes the ferry to get to his job at a Seattle law firm, wound up stuck in Seattle for hours after the Tacoma stalled. He was most frustrated with what he considered a lack of communication from the ferry system, but said overall it's reliable.
"We still depend on the ferries to get to our jobs, sporting events, family engagements or whatever, and that's not going to change," he said.
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