The cover of November’s WorkBoat magazine, which will be distributed at Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle Nov. 19-21, features two Pacific Northwest maritime icons, a Foss tug and a Washington state ferry. But the scene isn’t some color-coordinated photo op, it’s a helicopter shot of a disabled ferry being towed after losing power last July while crossing from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. The photo represents one of many “oops” incidents that have bedeviled the state-owned ferry system over the past few years, and last summer in particular.

Most of these incidents have been relatively minor, but they have inconvenienced thousands of passengers and have triggered the voicing of many complaints and the pointing of many fingers.

Capt. George Capacci, a retired Coast Guard officer and this summer’s interim director of the state’s ferries division, told WorkBoat that the consternation shows how much the people of Puget Sound rely on Washington State Ferries. That’s true, we do. I certainly do. That’s why the service has to be safe and reliable, which it is, usually, but the rash of problems has the public, the media and state officials scratching their heads and wondering if there’s more that needs overhauling than just some of the aging ferries.

In September, Lynne Griffith took the system’s helm as the new Assistant Secretary of Transportation for ferries. She’s not a boat person, she’s a bus person, but she’s been getting a crash course on ferry construction and operations during her first weeks on the job. Everyone wishes her well, of course, but she’s got a lot to take care of, from lobbying the state Legislature for more new-construction money to finding ways to recruit and retain sufficient deckhands, engineers and officers.

In many ways, the underlying problem is money. The ferry system is always strapped for cash and is constantly looking for ways to increase revenue, usually by raising fares. When a voter initiative eliminated a vehicle excise tax over a decade ago, an important source of capital funds was also eliminated. Consequently, the boats haven’t been replaced fast enough and the existing boats are worked very hard. WSF simply needs more money for new construction and better maintenance of existing boats. Wages could also use a good bump to compete more effectively with commercial operations.

At the same time, the WSF executives need to convince riders, legislators and employees that it has the right priorities and the necessary skills to properly manage the public’s ferry system.

With a degree in English literature from the University of Washington (Go Dawgs!), journalism experience at the once-upon-a-time Seattle P-I, and at-sea experience as a commercial fisherman in Washington and Alaska, Bruce Buls has forged a career in commercial marine trade journalism, including stints at Alaska Fishermen’s Journal and National Fisherman, WorkBoat’s sister publications. Bruce spent 16 years as WorkBoat's technical editor before retiring in May 2015. He lives on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, about 20 miles north of Seattle (go 'Hawks!).