A successful step into the unknown in the ferry industry

David Mott speaks to Amy Scarton to see how the US transport expert has adapted to her new role at Washington State Ferries

A successful step into the unknown in the ferry industry

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of the International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

To many people in the maritime world, 40 might seem a mature age to start running a ferry company, especially when it is the largest in the US and the person in question has no immediate hands-on experience in the industry. However, that is precisely what Amy Scarton did when she took over as assistant secretary (chief operating officer) at Washington State Ferries (WSF) at the start of 2017.

Despite her lack of history in the ferry sector, Scarton’s credentials for the job are impeccable. She held senior posts in the administrations for both former US Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and emerged as a ferry chief who can talk to government officials in a language they can understand. Scarton’s predecessor Lynne Griffith was 27 years her senior, but gave her unstinting support in the new role after observing her work at the head of the Economic Development Office in the state’s transport division.

“Before moving to Washington state four years ago, I spent 15 years in Washington DC in transport, freight and aviation, but not ferries,” Scarton says, adding that she has a listen-first philosophy. “My husband, who also worked in Washington DC, wanted to return to his home state. My move was made for family reasons, but I was excited to be chosen for the job with no immediate relevant experience.”

WSF carries 24.5 million passengers a year – 14 million as foot passengers and 10.5 million in their cars. Currently, these passengers are carried on 22 active vessels, but a fourth Olympia-class ship is being built at the Vigor Shipyard in Portland, Oregon and will join the fleet this summer. “The Olympic-class vessels can carry 1,500 passengers and 144 cars and we will retain the vessel that is being replaced by the newbuild for use as required in future,” Scarton comments.

Like all ferry companies, one of WSF’s major concerns is how to cut back on pollution and harmful emissions.

“Our way is to retrofit existing vessels, changing them so they can operate on diesel-electric hybrid power,” says Scarton. “Our three largest vessels used 26% of all our fuel. They are scheduled for a 20-year general refit anyway, so we can cut both our fuel consumption and emissions at the same time.”

Scarton points out that the US is already well ahead of the International Maritime Organization’s 0.5% sulphur cap, which has a 2020 deadline. This is because regulations covering the US east and west coasts and some inland waters have imposed a much lower 0.1% cap for some time. “The US has always been ahead in this,” says Scarton, who is in a better position to know than most, given her federal background.

In early 2018, Scarton expects that funding will become available to take research into electric ferry conversion to the next level – whether it is best and cheaper to take power directly from the dock, or from battery banks on the quayside. WSF is not alone in this dilemma; it’s also faced by a number of ferry companies in Scandinavia and elsewhere.

WSF is also renovating its older and newer terminals. Colman Dock in Seattle is being totally rebuilt over a six-year period. It is being taken down and rebuilt in thirds to give eventual capacity for nine million passengers. A second phase of construction begins this year.

A new ferry terminal north of Seattle is planned to be operational by 2019. Meanwhile, the US$140 million Mukilteo Pier project is being funded jointly by the state and the Federal Government. Both terminals are being renewed and renovated to overcome their existing vulnerability to earthquakes.

To keep operations running smoothly, WSF updates its fares by 1-3% every two years, either in May or October. The last rise was in October 2017. “We are a public service and therefore not profitable,” says Scarton. “Our total cost recovery ratio is 75%, most of which is from fares. This means we expect to get 25% cover of our costs from Washington State.”

But do the routes change much, if at all? “We have 10 routes at present and are going forward on that basis,” Scarton replies. “We are at the beginning of planning for the next long-term arrangement of 20 years to 2040. Revenue targets are updated every two years.” While covering her wide range of responsibilities, Scarton makes the surprising statement that half her staff are eligible to retire on pension. For senior officers, the figure is a slightly higher 55%.

“We are promoting and retraining from within to level this out, and where possible, including minorities like native Americans and more women (at least 25%) in senior roles,” she says. “This is certainly true of the pilots we use on 10 different routes.”

The company is also looking to go beyond providing a port-to-port service to customers, and instead deliver a door-to-door experience, by better integrating its ferry services with local road and rail transport. This collaborative spirit chimes with Scarton given her federal intermodal responsibilities. The chief executive, who lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters, says it is people that make the system work.

Hence her emphasis on rejuvenating her workforce. “The boats themselves are working well and it is my job to keep the company going,” she concludes. “Order one is to stay on course.”

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David Mott
By David Mott
Friday, May 11, 2018