Before the sun rose each morning, Tracy Soderquist would get on the first state ferry out of Bremerton. At 4:50 a.m., her boat would leave the dock, laden over the last few weeks with mostly construction and health care workers bound for Seattle.
Soderquist’s destination: a 7 a.m. shift in the critical care unit at a Seattle hospital, where she works as a nurse on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
Ferry ridership has dwindled over the last few weeks, and on March 27, Washington State Ferries announced it would be cutting ferry service roughly in half on Bremerton and Bainbridge Island routes for the foreseeable future, along with a few other changes. At the time, the agency pointed to falling passenger numbers and said that the moves would allow crews to be combined.
Included in the cuts: the 4:50 a.m. sailing Soderquist and other health care workers rely on to get to Seattle on time for their shifts.
Her plan is a little different now. Taking Kitsap Transit’s fast-ferry service from Bremerton to Seattle can still allow her to get to work on time, but she knows the boat has fewer, more confined seats and that bad weather might cancel sailings. And with no weekend service, she’s looking at staying with a friend on Bainbridge Island to take the ferry there or using up a limited number of hotel stays her employer is offering. Driving around Puget Sound to Seattle is an option but would make a tiring, stressful day even longer.
Soderquist understands why the state made cuts but notes that she and others on the boat are front-line workers: “It really complicates getting to work and adds another level of stress for people on the front lines,” she said.
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Other Kitsap-based health care workers the Kitsap Sun spoke to for this story relayed similar stories of frustration with the new schedule.
Bremerton's Chelsea Reimer also took the 4:50 a.m. sailing on the way to her job as an ICU nurse at Virginia Mason’s Seattle hospital. Now, a fast-ferry sailing will also get her to work on time, but she notes that the boat is more confined, which raises the risk of virus transmission.
“Getting there in the morning has become a little complex,” she said.
Virginia Mason is offering hotel accommodations, and Reimer said she planned to use them in between her weekend shifts instead of making the trip home.
WSF spokesman Ian Sterling said ferries officials will continue to look at the schedule and look for areas where it might make sense to adjust, but noted, “If you adjust for one person, you screw up someone else’s commute.”
Sterling said the reduced schedule takes into account plummeting ridership numbers and allows the agency “to get people out of harm’s way” by having fewer of its own employees working while still maintaining some service.
“Our goal is to keep ferry service predictable and sustainable,” he said. “These aren’t normal times; we can’t figure for anyone it’s going to be a normal commute or schedule.”
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If Poulsbo’s Tracie Cullen, a critical care nurse who works night shifts at Seattle Children’s Hospital, is able to make it onto a 7:55 a.m. sailing from Seattle to Bainbridge after her shift is over, she’ll get home in good time. If not, she’ll be stuck waiting for a 9:35 a.m. sailing, which means she wouldn’t get home until around 10:30 a.m., she said, meaning less sleep, which is especially painful in between back-to-back 12-hour shifts.
“I get that ridership is down, but honestly my reaction was not good. It just makes another huge challenge to get to and from work in a job that is already really stressful. My reaction is probably not publishable,” she said with a laugh, suggesting that the state consider a fare reduction for first responders.
Renee Gorman, of Suquamish, faces a similar problem on the Bainbridge route. The 8:45 a.m. sailing Gorman, a night-shift nurse at Swedish Medical Center’s Cherry Hill campus in Seattle, would take home in the morning was eliminated. Instead of walking on the boat as she usually did, she now drives her own vehicle to make sure she can make the 7:55 a.m. sailing back home. On one day this week, she missed it and drove to Edmonds to ride over to Kingston, she said.
Driving can tack on around $30 more to her ferry commute each day. The ORCA card she gets through work only works for walk-on trips, and she’s not using her bus pass now either, she said.
“Unfortunately, driving over is the best option to ensure I’m going to get enough sleep between shifts and keep my schedule as normal as it can be,” she said.
When it announced the changes a week ago, Washington State Ferries said the cuts would remain in place through at least April 25.
The 4:50 a.m. trip out of Bremerton was averaging 70 walk-on passengers and 80 vehicle passengers a day during the last week in March leading up to the cutbacks, said Sterling, the WSF spokesman.
“Hey, they’re running the most important job in the world right now,” he said, referring to health care providers. “But it’s hard to keep things running for a couple of people.”
Nathan Pilling is a reporter covering Bainbridge Island, North Kitsap and Washington State Ferries for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-5242, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @KSNatePilling.
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