In the early 2000s, I was the chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee. This was shortly after the Legislature had killed the motor-vehicle excise tax, a major source of funding for ferries. As a result, fares more than doubled almost overnight and service declined, mostly because of the age of many ferries.
Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal (file photo)
It was clear Washington State Ferries (WSF) headquarters had little interest in service to the San Juans because of its remoteness and lack of political heft in Olympia, but there were some very knowledgeable, helpful people in front-line operations jobs we worked with to make the best of what we had.
During that time, a well-intentioned WSF boss suddenly retired the so-called “steel-electric” class of ferries, old and relatively small but key to service between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. The plan was to replace them with much bigger boats that could serve other routes as well.
However, elected officials in Port Townsend and Jefferson County banded together to oppose the plan, which would have flooded downtown Port Townsend with hundreds of cars every hour. Their opposition killed that plan. (WSF’s solution to was to build smaller boats based on a Martha’s Vineyard route, but the WSF version unfortunately didn’t sit evenly in the water and were quickly dubbed the I Lean Class.)
Seeing how one small county and town, when it spoke out, could get WSF’s attention, I pressed San Juan County to begin doing the same. While the need for new boats was obvious, one of WSF’s plans was to build a new terminal in Anacortes at a cost of about $165 million. It made no sense (and almost 20 years later still hasn’t been done).
WSF didn’t appreciate the aggressiveness of our committee and captured the ears of several council members, who “fired” me from my voluntary position and sat back waiting for things to get better. That hasn’t worked out all that well.
Now, a different group of council members have been sitting silently as ferry service to the county — our version of state highways — has crumbled. Fewer than half of the county’s sailings have been on time. More than 300 sailings this summer were cancelled, more than three times the number of the summer before and about seven times the summer of 2020, when service and travel were reduced due to the pandemic.
Cancelled sailings are particularly problematic in San Juan County, especially when it involves the ferry that takes students, workers and people with doctor’s appointments from one island to another. This is a ferry built when Eisenhower was president and Fidel Castro had taken over in Cuba. Its mechanical reliability is about what you’d expect.
It is not uncommon for someone to have gone, say, to Lopez only to discover the inter-island boat has gone out-of-service (OOS in WSF parlance); then standing and watching as a mainline ferry from Anacortes, headed where you want to go, just sails on by, leaving you to wait a couple of hours to catch a mainline boat to Anacortes, then wait to catch a different mainline boat that will stop where you live. A 10-minute trip turns into nine hours.
Now that school is in session and the weather is turning toward winter, there is every expectation the problems will grow worse. While there are no long-term solutions in sight, there are immediate things that could be done to protect against the worst.
One would be to have WSF swap a more reliable boat for the inter-island boat. That would put the less reliable boat much closer to WSF’s repair facilities and give the county hope that inter-island service could be stabilized.
Another would be to have WSF set up an alert system that would immediately shift all the mainline boats to stop at all islands each way between Anacortes and Friday Harbor. WSF does it now ad hoc and through layers of bureaucracy and very slowly. They need to have a plan and give authority to implement it to one person who hopefully knows the islands’ needs. It’s hardly a perfect solution because it would undoubtedly lead to unhappy mainline travelers, especially at the Anacortes end. But it wouldn’t leave inter-island travelers — especially school kids — stranded away from their homes.
Doing either of these options has drawbacks. Doing neither guarantees what we know is bad will almost inevitably get worse.