Washington State transport department cancelled ferry service to avoid daily bad press, local think tank reports

A vessel operated by Washington State Ferries (Photo: Washington Policy Center)
A vessel operated by Washington State Ferries (Photo: Washington Policy Center)

Public records show that when the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) significantly cut back ferry service in early October of 2021, a week before over 400 employees were fired due to the state vaccine mandate, it did so to protect its own image, Mariya Frost, Director of the Coles Center for Transportation at local think tank and non-profit Washington Policy Center (WPC), wrote in a recent article.

"To better reflect the service we can currently provide and to minimise last-minute cancelations due to a lack of crew, we made this difficult decision to adjust our schedules," head of Washington State Ferries (WSF) Patty Rubstello said in a press release dated October 13, 2021.

However, Frost said internal emails suggest the decision to cut back service and inconvenience riders was a PR strategy and against the governor's recommendation to hold off on service cuts.

After a meeting with Governor Jay Inslee about WSF staffing shortages and route cancelations due to staff protesting the vaccine mandate, WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar debriefed his communications team.

"Governor wants to hold off on service reductions for now," Millar said. "I strongly recommend making reductions now. It will be a story one time. Daily missed sailings will be a daily story. Gov's team is working on it. More to come."

Frost added that Millar told his team that concerns about bad press override the governor's service concerns. Stephanie Cirkovich, WSF's Director of Community Services and Planning, responded in agreement with Millar.

"Reductions are going to happen one way or another," wrote Cirkovich, who also said she appreciates Millar "advocating for them to be more methodical and preemptive."

Cirkovish said in the same email exchange that the longer the WSF does not reduce service, "the more dramatic the reductions will look later [in] October."

In her article, Frost wrote that WSDOT officials like Cirkovich knew that the vaccine mandate-related firings on October 18 would dramatically impact service but wanted to hide the impact on the agency's performance.

Frost added that publicly, the agency watered down the impact of the mandate in exacerbating their staffing shortage by pointing to 2020 hiring freezes and 2021 "nationwide hiring challenges, an aging workforce near retirement, and a competitive labor market."

Frost concluded that even while knowing, as the governor did, that these widespread ferry service cuts would be disruptive, Millar decided instead that PR and the image of the agency was more important than providing service to riders.

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