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Is Washington's Ferry System Running on Empty?

The US Coast Guard sets the rules for vessel operators like the Washington State Ferry system, specifying how many hands are required to meet official Certificate of Inspection standards. For decades, WSF staffing levels have exceeded the required minimums. But now, says the Inland Boatmen's Union, ferry system managers are cutting back on the number of deckhands and engineers assigned to each boat. If someone's missing, the ferry simply doesn't sail.

WSF operates 450 sailings a day, but, as Northwest Cable News reported this week, the number of sailings that delayed or cancelled due to staffing problems has increased ten-fold in the past three months.

Deputy hief George Capacci told KING TV that WSF is talking to labor unions to see if disgruntled employees are causing a work slow-down. The unions deny the charges, Says the ILU's Dennis Conklin, "This is ferry system mismanagement. They don't have enough people now. We're down to the barebones and if one person is missing, the boat doesn't sail."

But as one ferry rider put it, "Every boat's important to somebody and if that's the boat that doesn't go, then that's their biggest deal for that day."