Is passenger-ferry service for the islands possible? - Salish Current
February 7, 2024
Is passenger-ferry service for the islands possible?
Toby Cooper

Something like this, perhaps? The Finest, a passenger catamaran in the Kitsap Fast Ferries fleet, brought a festive mood to the Kingston terminal on the day of its inauguration. (SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

February 7, 2024
Is passenger-ferry service for the islands possible?
Toby Cooper

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It colors your life, observed Orcas residents Annette and John Pierre van Dongen, whose daughter Alex has ridden the Washington State Ferries (WSF) interisland route between Orcas Island and Friday Harbor to attend Spring Street School daily for several years. 

“Every day brings uncertainty, Annette said. “Alex goes off to school and we are left wondering if the ferry that took her there will actually bring her back.” 

In 2023, the van Dongens began volunteering their personal skiff as a backup with two other boat owners who remained on-call in case WSF cancelled its run.

What began as altruism became an unsustainable burden which got “old and expensive, and, when we bumped a log in the water, we feared for everyone’s safety. It was too much for us,” John Pierre said. “WSF needs help that we alone cannot give. I keep hoping there is something we have not thought of yet.”

According to the FY 2023 WSDOT Ferries Division Performance Report, which analyzes data for the entire WSF system, Washington’s ferry riders endured 3,519 cancellations last year, some of which left Alex van Dongen stranded at school.

Inconsistent ferry service has become the bane of island existence in this tranquil county tucked away in Washington’s Salish Sea. Ferry dependency permeates every aspect of life, from shopping to commerce to accessing mainland medical service and more. 

As one resident stuck in the waiting line said, “On these islands, ‘ferry-served’ has become an oxymoron.” 

Causes and solutions

The situation appears to be worsening. The 2023 performance report cites a reliability statistic, which WSF calculates by dividing the total number of sailings performed by total sailings scheduled. In 2020, that quotient was 99.4% — above WSF’s target of 99% — but it has fallen each subsequent year, standing at 97.7% in 2023. [Read more: “Where’s the ferry?” Salish Current, Feb. 24, 2023]

Washington State Ferries provide a vital and much-used link in the state highway system. Walk-on passengers and cyclists offload on Lopez Island on a September Saturday in 2021. (Salish Current photo)

WSF notes that 46% of last year’s canceled sailings were caused by crew shortages. 

Furthermore, WSF operates a fleet of aging vessels — some over 50 years old. While five new vessels have been authorized by the state, the arrival of new boats, especially on San Juan County’s service routes, is years away. 

“I am committed to finding solutions for San Juan County’s ferry crisis,” said Rep. Alex Ramel [D-Bellingham], who serves on the House Transportation Committee. He  acknowledged that “new ferries will be in competition for limited transportation funds with bridges and highways, and we need to make sure ferries are not put at the back of the line again.”

Against this backdrop, the notion of a parallel public transit model — a passenger-only service — to supplement the WSF interisland route looms like an oasis in the burning desert. Residents and tourists alike can imagine reliable interisland transit while leaving their cars at home.

When Gov. Jay Inslee visited Lopez Island last September, county council chair Jane Fuller made sure to “buttonhole” the state’s chief executive about the ferry crisis. “We needed to ring the bell,” she said later.

A month later, the San Juan County Council sent Inslee a nine-item plan for expanding crew availability, prioritizing medical passengers, improved on-call backup, data collection and other measures to increase ferry reliability. Included was a specific a request for the governor to “[S]upport the County in establishing a passenger-only ferry service between the islands.” [Read more: “Strangled by ferry crisis, islanders demand action,” Salish Current, Nov. 20, 2023]

The council noted 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.”

Co-signing were the Town Council of Friday Harbor and the county governing boards for health care, fire, public safety, family resource, education, commerce and port administration. 

Passenger-only options

On Dec. 20, Inslee responded to all nine points in the council’s letter and cited specific progress on each. 

 “[W]e want to institute passenger-only ferry service and believe there is a way to do this,” he wrote. “It is time for us to put this option back on the table and I welcome the council’s voice in that discussion.”

A few weeks later, the governor released the Transportation section of the 2024 Supplemental Budget Request and Policy Highlights containing $2.25 million for WSF to “examine opportunities to provide passenger-only service on the interisland ferry route between the San Juan Islands … and an additional $5 million … to support funding capital recommendations for the interisland route.” 

Last August, Orcas resident Justin Paulsen learned that some Orcas kids had lost their ride to the county fair because the interisland ferry was cancelled. Paulsen called his friend Tom Bridge, who operates a local water taxi and barge service, to see if Bridge could transport the kids. 

“I asked Tom what it would cost,” said Paulsen. “Tom gave me a number. I said, ‘Let’s reach out on social media,’ which we did, and an anonymous donor put up $300. The kids got to the fair, but Tom and I had a longer conversation.”

Within days, Community Water Taxi (CWT) was born, to the delight of many in the county fed up with WSF’s repeated cancellations. 

“We are the Community Water Taxi,” their mission states. “We are a group of concerned island residents running an emergency and on-call interisland water taxi service within San Juan County, separate from the Washington State Ferries.”

She still gets around: The Carlisle II, built in Bellingham by Lummi Island Navigation Company in 1917, is still in service as a backup vessel for Kitsap Fast Ferries. Originally part of the Mosquito Fleet out of Seattle, she has served passengers from Gooseberry Point, Lummi Island and Orcas Island as well. These days, ferry systems around the Salish Sea are looking ahead to transitioning to hybrid and electric boats. (Nwclassicyacht, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

CWT’s Ed Andrews describes their model as “a referral service.” When WSF goes down, CWT proposes to reach out to a network of independent, qualified, licensed small boat operators — their own “Mosquito Fleet” — who take stranded passengers where they need to go.

Paulsen, who also serves on San Juan County’s Ferry Advisory Committee, acknowledges that the Mosquito Fleet model is a work inprogress. CWT remains a startup effort, unincorporated, currently relying on handshakes and good will to execute its mission. But the can-do spirit of a community willing to bootstrap itself has become inspirational.

“We owe them a huge debt of gratitude,” said Fuller. “They provided the backstop to this whole conversation.”

“WSF can’t do it all,” said Paulsen. CWT’s plans a survey to document, for example, numbers of missed medical appointments when WSF cancels a ferry. “We need to rebuild what WSF is to all the ferry-served communities. It’s a shifting paradigm that will not arrive overnight.”

‘Our first priority’

If the legislature approves the governor’s $2.25 million study money, WSF will review potential passenger-only ferry operations in San Juan County, including cost structure, size of vessels, infrastructure, markets, destinations and “last-mile” solutions for how walk-on passengers will get where they need to go.

WSF’s Director of Planning, Customs and Government Relations, John Vezina, who will oversee contracting for the governor’s study, promised he has “already spent a lot of time looking into the San Juan County situation.”

Vezina believes the study could examine the viability of passenger-only service between Anacortes, the islands and Sidney, British Columbia, a route WSF has discontinued until at least 2030. A Bellingham route has been mentioned as well, according to Vezina.  

Fuller and the county council are insisting that the study “explore viable options for passenger-only service as it pertains to San Juan County’s standing as a stakeholder” in this endeavor. 

“You are first on our priority list,” said Vezina.

State-of-the-art systems

A successful passenger-only system in Puget Sound is in Bremerton where Kitsap Transit operates their seven-vessel Fast Ferries system on a $22 million annual budget. They carry almost one million walk-on passengers per year to and from Seattle in half the time it takes WSF to make the same trip.

Kitsap’s sleek twin-hulled vessels carry from 118 up to 350 passengers on three major routes — Bremerton, Kingston and Southworth —to downtown Seattle in 26–40 minutes.

“I like to think we provide a model for the future,” says Bremerton’s mayor, Greg Wheeler. “When changes in the WSF fleet left us with only one boat, and they said we would see no new boats until 2028, we knew something had to be done.” 

Wheeler notes that the Fast Ferries system grew in part out of end-user data gathered to show public acceptance of passenger-only transit services, similar to the  data being gathered by Paulsen’s tiny startup.

Kitsap County voters approved a taxing district to fund ferry operations with a sales tax which passes through county public works.

This legislative session, the governor’s 2024 supplemental budget includes $4 million in capital expenditures “solely for Kitsap Transit design work and shore power infrastructure … to begin construction of an electric hydrofoil passenger-only ferry.”

Similarly, Skagit County and Whatcom County operate the Guemes Island-Anacortes and Gooseberry Point-Lummi Island ferries, respectively, out of county public works accounts. Neither is passenger-only, but the financial models resemble Kitsap without the tax district. 

Captain Rachel Rowe, Ferry Operations Manager for the Guemes ferry, reported that Skagit County Public Works provides the operational budget out of road funds. Fares collected on the boat accrue to the road fund. To meet any funding gaps, Rowe finds additional road funds, motor vehicle fuel taxes, and even federal grants to make ends meet.

Prop SF

In 2015, marine entrepreneur James Jaber founded Prop SF, a passenger-only network on San Francisco Bay. Prop SF’s multiple routes connect underserved commercial routes. 

Prop SF operates boats carrying 36 to 70 passengers on routes originally established by contracting with certain Silicon Valley employers and municipalities, but all routes are open to the public. Fares collected offset the contracts. 

Like Kitsap Transit, Prop SF features nimble 30-knot boats capable of all-weather, day-or-night service. “It’s not about speed, it’s about reliability,” Jaber said.

Jaber has spoken informally with citizens and government in San Juan County about the potential for bringing vessels to the interisland route. Based on these conversations, Prop SF may be included in the governor’s study.

Modernization is in the works as well. Prop SF — like Kitsap, Guemes Island and WSF — has plans to electrify. Whatcom County has received a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to replace the 60-year-old Lummi Island ferry with a new hybrid boat and update docks and other infrastructure to accommodate it.

Real or mirage?

 “There is momentum to explore viable options for passenger-only service,” said Fuller after reviewing the governor’s budget plans and policy statements. “San Juan County needs these options for our health care needs, commerce, climate resilience, education, and so much more.”

Momentum now shifts to Olympia where Reps. Ramel and Debra Lekanoff [D-Bow] and Sen. Liz Lovelett [D-Anacortes] have pledged support for the supplemental budget, its San Juan County-focused study provision, and the $5 million follow-on capital expenditures. 

“This county needs to look at how we organize ourselves to establish an improved partnership with the state,” said Fuller. “We need to become a convener and coordinator of this effort. With the help of our citizens, I believe we can do it, and do it well.

— Reported by Toby Cooper

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