Strangled by ferry crisis, islanders demand action - Salish Current
November 20, 2023
Strangled by ferry crisis, islanders demand action
Nancy DeVaux

Washington State Ferries vessels serve as part of the state highway system throughout the Salish Sea, providing vital connection — and the only means of transportation for most residents among the San Juan Islands and the mainland. (Amy Nelson / Salish Current photo © 2022)

November 20, 2023
Strangled by ferry crisis, islanders demand action
Nancy DeVaux

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“The ferry crisis has been slowly strangling our community for two years now,” opens a report released today by a Salish Sea activist group. “A small town like ours can only take so much. If we do not find solutions soon, the crisis will devastate the health, livelihoods, and education of thousands.” 

The 25-page report — titled “An Island in Crisis, Focused on Solutions” — was compiled by the working group Islanders for Ferry Action (IFA), organized by Vashon Islanders in September.

“We need action now to protect the economic well-being, health and quality of life of our 11,000 residents,” the report declares. “We need immediate, real-world, multi-agency solutions to address the harms people are experiencing. We deserve safe, reliable transportation to and from our businesses and homes.”

The report identifies the most critical impacts of disruptions on the Vashon Island ferry run as:

  • Students and children stranded on docks, and schools facing economic impacts.
  • Emergency services encountering alarming delays and gaps in access to the mainland.
  • Patients receiving ongoing, life-saving procedures or care experiencing dangerous delays.
  • Small businesses struggling to survive facing mounting economic impacts.
  • Commuters losing jobs and wages, waiting hours in line daily.

As one Vashon resident noted, “We have no other way to get off of the island. I understand that it is my choice to live here, but in the 58 years I have been here, this is the worst service I have ever encountered. I’m afraid to drive off of Vashon not knowing when or if I can make it back.”

Island living, dependent on ferries

This sentiment is echoed strongly throughout the San Juan Islands, where ferry cancellations have also been a regularly occurrence.

Unlike all the other ferry routes in Washington, neither Vashon Island nor the San Juan Islands have bridges or driving-around options, making Washington State Ferries (WSF) the only public access for vehicles and passengers.

Amy Nesler, communications manager for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, said that the bureau has helped businesses be aware of opportunities to speak up and participate. “My impression is that it has gotten worse in the past few months,” Nesler said. Business is down and “with all the negative news coming out of Seattle, the ferries can’t catch a break.” 

Nesler said she is looking for positive stories and wishes to show appreciation. “We know they’re struggling, and we’re in this together,” she said.

In both communities, citizens were driven to activism by the stresses of the disruptions. Negative impacts of unpredictable and unreliable sailings on both Vashon and the San Juan Islands routes have increased. The impacts “are compounding to critical levels. The evidence for this is mounting,” San Juan County’s elected officials asserted in  letter sent Nov. 2 to Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar. 

In June, San Juan Island resident Fred Yockers had had enough of ferry cancellations. He created a Facebook group called “The Last Boat Left — Fix Our Ferry System!” His purpose was to bring people together to look for solutions. “We are not a protest group,” the Facebook page says. “We are interested in smart, sane, positive actions. The ferries are our HIGHWAY and the system is crumbling. Join us if you want to see positive change. SOON!” 

The group has over 1,400 members and the page is a compilation of everything ferry-related. Stories of missed ferries, copies of articles about ferries from various publications, advertisements for a water taxi service, some serious suggestions and even some jokes are included. 

In October, Yockers convened a group of people who had expressed constructive solutions on his page to discuss solutions. He also announced that he would continue as the administrator of the page but would turn the leadership of the group over to someone else.

Former San Juan county commissioner Tom Starr stepped up. Meeting attendees voted to name the group FLOW for Ferry Lovers of Washington — in recognition of the late Islands journalist Howard Schonberger, who had initiated an organization of that name decades ago. 

Starr plans to focus the group’s efforts on three areas at this time. One is to work with other local groups such as the Red Cross and local churches to help create an emergency plan for stranded passengers. Another effort will be to create a vo-tech scholarship for students to take the training necessary to work for the ferry system. The third effort will be on lobbying.

FLOW has met three times, most recently on Nov. 16. Starr said the group identified a list of eight areas to address, which were very similar to those in the letter from San Juan County officials outlining the issues for state officials. 

A number one priority

County council member Jane Fuller, liaison to the San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee, said that the letter came about after the interisland ferry stopped working during the week of the San Juan County Fair. This had economic and social consequences and was “a huge disaster.” County residents could not get to the fair and fair-goers could not get home nor take their animals home. Fuller said she was “unbelievably exasperated” and saw the need to reach out directly to the highest levels of government.

At a subsequent joint meeting of the Town and County councils, ferry service was identified as the number one priority.

The resulting letter was signed by members of the San Juan County Council and the Friday Harbor Town Council and Mayor. Cosigners included the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee; boards of the San Juan, Orcas and Lopez hospital/healthcare districts; boards of the three island fire districts and EMS; boards of the family resource centers; boards of the Chambers of Commerce; the four island school districts; the board of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau; and the Ports of Friday Harbor, Eastsound and Lopez Island.

The letter acknowledges that the Anacortes/San Juan Islands route is not expected to be fully restored by WSF until the end of this decade at the earliest. As new hybrid electric boats gradually materialize over the next five to seven years, they will replace boats that are upwards of 60 to 70 years old that will need to be decommissioned. The 21-vessel fleet across the system will not increase. “This is not sustainable for our county,” the letter said.

Adding new boats will not increase the size of the fleet for years, due to the age of the boats, concurred Ken Burtness, chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee. “Everybody’s doing the best job they can,” he said. “The legislature approved funding,” and WSF has initiated an expedited two-year training program for a program that typically takes three years. However, he said, the silver tsunami of retirees means that “licensed deck officers are retiring at a faster pace than we can keep up with.”

Burtness pointed out that over Veteran’s Day weekend when the Yakima ferry broke down, the ferries were down by one boat each on four separate ferry runs across the system, or half of the total ferry runs. “There will be a serious shortage of boats for a lot of years,” Burtness said. “There was a 20-year period of decline, and it could take 20 years to rebuild.”

Local service solutions suggested

Fuller said efforts are underway to find localized solutions to improve service, such as improved real-time communication to offer better predictability. She also stressed the importance of the interisland ferry as service that is absolutely critical because it is relied upon by people to get to work and children to get to school, and serves the social fabric of the islands.

Suggestions in the letter are:

  • Increase the accessibility for priority medical loading within the islands and to and from Anacortes.
  • Support the County in establishing a passenger-only ferry service between the islands.
  • Establish a reliable emergency schedule.
  • Provide financial support to the County and Town of Friday Harbor for data collection and analysis of the impacts to businesses and residents of ferry service disruptions on the Anacortes /San Juan Islands route.
  • Incentivize residency for WSF crews within a reasonable distance from the Anacortes/San Juan Islands terminals.
  • Establish a secondary on-call crew exclusive to the Anacortes/San Juan Island routes.
  • Develop an Emergency Action Plan with local stakeholders (Town of Friday Harbor, San Juan County, other local agencies) to mitigate impacts of stranded commuters when vessels are cancelled unexpectedly.
  • Partner with the Northwest Workforce Council, the county’s Economic Development Council, local trades programs and school districts to promote interest in employment with WSF as a career.
  • Examine the feasibility of increased wages for employees of WSF to be competitive given current workforce shortage conditions.

Fuller hopes to convene a meeting of representatives from ferry-served islands and leaders of WSF in the coming months. She has received responses from Millar’s office and from Rep. Alex Ramel (D-Bellingham). 

“I can assure you I will be following up,” she said.

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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