UW Fauntleroy Ferry Study Targets Performance Improvements

Evans School researchers suggest improvements in technology, staffing and community engagement.

The UW Evans School of Public Policy and Governance released its study of Fauntleroy dock operations last month, recommending a slate of improvements to facilitate ticketing and loading there, a critical point in the Washington State Ferries’ Triangle Route.

Short-term recommendations, which study authors urge WSF to pilot “as soon as feasible,” include improved staffing and technology to allow for ticketing before vehicles arrive at the tollbooth, where bottlenecks often occur. In the long term, the authors recommend that WSF adopt the state’s Good to Go! tolling system. The researchers also recommend four changes they say will supply “incremental gains” no matter what other alternatives are put in place: improving staffing on the Triangle Route, revising WSF’s performance measures, improving data collection and analysis, and refining WSF’s community engagement practices.

The study is the result of nearly six months of work conducted by a six-member team, both professors and graduate students, at the UW Evans School. Last spring, after a difficult summer of ferry travel, the state Legislature approved $75,000 for the study and tasked the researchers with analyzing and comparing WSF’s ticketing and loading procedures at Fauntleroy. The schedule, which WSF revised at the same time the researchers were working on the project, was outside the study’s scope.

The nearly 60-page report was released on Dec. 14 to the Washington State Department of Transportation and more broadly a few days later. Ferry spokesperson Dana Warr said WSF appreciates the UW’s work and recommendations on the challenging route. “We are pleased to see that UW’s recommendations are in line with WSF’s 2040 Long-Range Plan. We look forward to working with the Legislature to implement UW’s recommendations,” Warr said in an email last week.

Principal investigator Alison Cullen led the study with associate professor Stephen Page. Cullen is a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the Evans School; her areas of specialty include environmental policy/management and risk assessment. Page is an associate professor, whose specializations include public management/leadership and collaborative governance. In a recent phone conversation, Cullen noted that she believes the school was well suited to the task and has a history of public engagement, with faculty and students working on applied research locally, across the country and internationally. “I think that independent look is a key part of this and the ability to look across different alternatives and think about them, think about what the tradeoffs are and what they bring to a solution,” she said. “[We bring] that balanced look across different alternatives and thinking about the elements that could lead one to be successful or could lead to tradeoffs among different things that you could achieve.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed WSF data, interviewed community members and WSF staff, attended public meetings and open houses, rode ferries and observed operations at all three terminals. Ultimately, they arrived at range of recommendations, some of which are included in Washington State Ferries Long-Range Plan completed earlier this year—some that islanders have been asking for as travel on the Triangle Route has grown more difficult and some that are entirely new.

For the long term, the researchers recommend implementing the Good to Go! system, which they say would relieve the Fauntleroy bottleneck at the toll booths. “Nothing offers more potential to reduce the current congestion at the Fauntleroy terminal than direct loading,” they write. They also include some caveats about the implementation of that implementation. New technology would be needed, fare structures would have to be adjusted, and the Coast Guard’s security requirements of counting every person—which Good to Go! currently does not do, would need to be accommodated. The authors suggest incorporating Good to Go! during the 2025 dock replacement project.

To make improvements in the short term, before Good to Go! can be implemented, the researchers recommend upgrading mobile scanners, improving WiFi or data connectivity, and adding a staff member to assist with transactions in the holding lane. They offer a range of options: a mobile staff member validating pre-purchased tickets in line, a similar “upstream” validation of tickets but with expedited loading, and both upstream validation and ticketing.

The authors state that WSF should evaluate these approaches to determine vehicle wait-time savings, ticketing and loading-time costs and savings, reductions in available spaces on vessels, and bottlenecks in traffic lanes or dock lanes. Additionally, as mentioned above, the report suggests the following “cross-cutting” measures, which the authors say could be implemented separately or in any combination and may provide improvements of their own over current practices:

• Improve staff training, management and retention. A range of recommendations are provided, including hiring staff well before the summer season, teaching customer service and conflict de-escalation techniques and exploring ways to retain staff at the dock, known for its difficulty.

• Revise performance measures. State lawmakers created 17 performance measures on which it evaluates WSF. On the Triangle Route, the most discussed measure is the mandate to leave on time. The authors recommend revisions that they say would benefit WSF crews and the public. Those include prioritizing performance, such as “people and vehicles transported” rather than on-time departures, and including “vehicle wait times” in the measures.

• Expand data collection and analysis. The report recommends WSF obtain more accurate information for on-time and delayed departures, the number of vehicles and the length of wait time for each destination by sailing and a “robust empirical or modeled time comparison” comparing direct loading (pre-ticketed vehicles or Good to Go!) versus vehicles ticketed at the booth, among other changes.

• Refine community engagement. The authors state that community trust in WSF is low and that there is “persistent mistrust across the three Triangle Route communities.” They made a range of suggestions to address those issues, from expanding WSF’s social media presence and increasing information on the Triangle Route vessels to developing a smart phone app with “real-time” estimates of wait times. They also recommend that the Legislature dedicate funds in WSF’s budget to “build understanding and trust among the three Triangle Route Communities.” In particular, the authors recommend that a neutral third party lead discussions with stakeholders from each community to develop a common information base and a common understanding of problems and concerns.

One of the largest frustrations many islanders have with WSF and the Triangle Route is boats that leave partially empty while vehicles wait on the dock or in a long line on Fauntleroy Way. As part of the researchers’ work regarding how well the route meets demand, they analyzed WSF data from sailings between 2 and 7 p.m. from June 19 to Oct. 2, 2017; summer 2018 data was not available. From the original 716 observations, which were recorded by WSF personnel, the study members removed those observations that occurred during a two-boat schedule or included “non-numeric” information, leaving researchers with 629 observations to analyze. They found that within that 2 to 7 p.m. time frame, the average number of empty of spaces was 13 for on-time departures and 14 for late departures. At the peak of rush hour, 4 to 7 p.m., the data showed that on-time boats left with an average of eight available spaces compared to nine on late boats.

In the recent phone conversation with the researchers, Cullen said that she made some revisions to this portion of the report to highlight the limitations of the data, after hearing from islanders about this aspect of the study. Among those limitations is that there was no weekend data or holiday data included in what WSF provided and that 16 weekdays were absent as well. She noted that while 2018 data was not available, she did not expect that it would address the limitations of the 2017 data. The report’s appendix includes a summary of available data and shows the empty spaces on boats during the rush hour window varied from zero to 75.

In conversation, Cullen stressed the importance of better data collection. Acknowledging that researchers often do not have all the data, she said what they need is representative data. “You want representation of the best case, worst case and the middle case. You want those to be represented in about the proportions that they actually occur in so you can get something back that you can draw conclusions on.” The WSF data they received about spaces available did not meet that.

Her colleague Page also commented. “The broader is point is that … regardless of what percent of boats are leaving Fauntleroy with what percent of empty spaces , we recognize there are issues with ticketing and loading at Fauntleroy, and the report tries to analyze those and speak to them.”

The authors declined to comment on the recently revised schedule, as it was outside of their purview. However, in a recent email Cullen said that she believes their recommendations should complement the new schedule, but exactly how important they are will be determined over time.

She noted that WSF believes the new schedule will clear the dock better in Fauntleroy, with fewer boats running late and improved loading, but monitoring will determine if this is true. Regardless, in peak travel periods, she said their recommendations should help maintain the schedule and fill the boats more efficiently. Also, she said that the recommendations for fast tracking and technology will be particularly valuable when complicating factors arise, such as when the route operates on a two-boat schedule or there are delays in the new schedule.

“In either situation, getting cars loaded efficiently and quickly will be extremely important,” she wrote.

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