Commuter's Tale: A Month on the Water

Brown-bagging through hell aboard Washington State Ferries.

One particularly smug acquaintance demanded of me just the other day: "How's that hellish commute treating you?" The hellish commute this self-congratulating individual is referring to is the 60 minutes it takes Washington State Ferries to shuttle me between Bremerton and Seattle. The truth is: It's not so hellish. If you're going to spend two hours a day moving between home and work, you may as well do it on a vessel that serves beer, $100 views, and Wi-Fi. But lately, the service has been so relentlessly terrible, even this even-tempered, ferry-riding enthusiast is seriously considering a move to Beacon Hill. Here's a look at one month of highlights: Monday, Jan. 14: WSF moves the small, slow ferry Tillikum to the Bremerton run, setting off a week of massive delays (often more than 30 minutes). Not that you would know about the delays by checking the WSF Web site: Most of the time I didn't find out until I was already stuck waiting dockside. There's also an on-board plumbing problem, putting a stop to galley service and potable water. (WSF brought on water coolers. I brought a brown bag.) During this time, the Bainbridge run goes unscathed. Saturday, Jan. 26: A "weeping" deep pit is discovered in the hull of the ferry Yakima, which was servicing the San Juan run. Naturally, this damaged vessel is reassigned to the Bremerton run, which doesn't have the litigious constituency of Bainbridge, nor the tourist (yes, even in the winter) crowd of the San Juans. WSF says it's because of the calmer waters on the Bremerton run. As an added bonus, the Yakima doesn't have Wi-Fi. This starts what will be a three-week stretch in which half of the Bremerton runs are without Internet access. Friday, Feb. 8: I'm riding the ferry Yakima after Hillary Clinton's stop in SoDo. As we're approaching the dock, we hit something. Hard. The guy next to me starts repeating, "Oh, fuck, we didn't make it." A few hours later WSF calls it "wind damage." I call bullshit. (They later admitted to hitting the Bremerton Marina's new breakwater.) WSF doesn't have a spare auto ferry, so they replace the water-logged Yakima with passenger-only ferries. Monday, Feb. 11: The passenger-only ferry Snohomish strikes its mooring dock, rattling passengers and causing five minor injuries. Wednesday, Feb. 13: The Hyak auto ferry is brought out of dry dock, and normal two-boat service is resumed...for a few hours. The boat develops a drive-motor problem and is yanked from service after just one run. Monday, Feb. 18: Normal service resumes. For now. But, seriously, let's be fair. Can one bad month really speak for the whole Bremerton ferry experience? I didn't think so either. So it was serendipitous that as I was reliving my month at sea, the Washington State Department of Transportation released its "Gray Notebook" to the governor for the quarter ending Dec. 31, 2007. In this performance report, WSF reports only a slight decline in service quality on the Bremerton run during October through December of last year compared to the same period the year before. But the numbers still seem pretty darn good: 96 percent of the 2,405 trips were "on time," compared to 97 percent of the 1,095 trips during the last three months of 2006. (Of course, WSF defines "on time" as "no more than 10 minutes late.") But wait. There were half as many runs in 2006 as there were in 2007? No. As it happens, WSF says that due to a software glitch, the agency couldn't track 1,500 of the runs in that quarter of 2006. Only on the Bremerton run? Of course. Only the Bremerton run.

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