‘A very complex issue’: Ramel gives update on San Juan Islands ferry delays

Walk-on passengers and cyclists board the ferry for a midweek sailing from Lopez Island to Anacortes
on a sunny summer afternoon. With reduced travel — and occasional crew shortages — during
the COVID-19 pandemic, the Washington State Ferries system has been operating on its winter
schedule, with fewer sailings. However, traffic is heavy enough some days that the schedule is
thrown off by longer loading and unloading times. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Mike Sato

— “It’s a very complex issue we deal with on a weekly basis,” said Rep. Alex Ramel (D-Bellingham) in response to major Washington State Ferries (WSF) delays faced by passengers on the San Juan Islands route. 

“We’re in a pandemic and the most important thing has been to keep things moving,” the 40th legislative district representative said.

The state-run system has remained on a three-vessel winter schedule due to lower travel volume. As vehicle traffic has increased over the summer and loading and unloading times have taken longer, the result has been hour-long delays by the afternoon and evening. (For more on ferry delays, see “Necessary travel: ferries’ winter schedule in summer brings travel delays for locals, visitors in San Juans,” Salish Current, July 3, 2020.)

Rep. Alex Ramel

“For the last decade, there haven’t been necessary investments in the ferry system,” said Ramel. “Liz [Senator Lovelett (D-Anacortes)] and Debra [Rep. Lekanoff (D-Bow)] and I will be working on those investments in the upcoming transportation budget.”

The entire ferry system is poised precariously with a reduced number of available vessels in service. “The Elwha is in drydock and it’s too expensive to repair,” said Ramel. The situation would only get worse if another ferry were to break down.

While the prospects of having additional vessels available to restore the fleet to capacity is years away, a more immediate move of having more trained ferry personnel could address some delays and cancellations.

According to Ramel, the ferry system, which usually conducts one employee training a year, is doing a second training session to add a dozen personnel to the system’s roster. This will allow for coverage for illnesses and other absences that would cancel or delay sailings.

“It’s a short-term solution,” Ramel recognized. “But it’s one that we can do.” 

Among other options, instituting guaranteed passage for island residents has been suggested. Ramel said he did not think that would be legal for a public system — WSF operates as part of the Washington Department of Transportation.

As for a passenger ferry from Bellingham to Friday Harbor, “that would be convenient for me, but that’s just me,” said Ramel.

Ramel said that he’s open to any suggestions to address the ferry system’s problems and encourages contacting him at (360) 786-7970 or Alex.Ramel@leg.wa.gov.

Mike Sato compiles environmental news items for Salish Sea News and Weather and periodically blogs for Salish Sea Communications. He is the author of The Price of Taming a River: The Decline of Puget Sound’s Duwamish/Green Waterway. He resides in Bellingham and on Lopez Island.