Submitted by the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee
Washington State Ferries will be holding open house events Wednesday, May 2, in Friday Harbor, and on some interisland ferry runs, to gather input for the 2040 Ferries Long Range Plan. This effort has been underway for the last year or so, heading for a preliminary report in June and a complete report by year’s end.
This plan will shape ferries for the coming decades and is critically important to all ferry riders, particularly those who live on islands. If you think the ferry service can be improved, then it is vitally important that you share your ideas and make your voice heard at one of these open house.
The day will start with an open house on the 9:30 a.m. ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor. The WSF team will then shift the open house to the interisland ferry departing Friday Harbor at 11:35 a.m. with stops at Shaw at 12:20 p.m., Orcas at 12:40 p.m., and Lopez at 1 p.m., returning to Friday Harbor at 2 p.m. They will then set up at Brickworks, at 150 Nichols St., from 3:30-6 p.m.
This long-range plan looks forward to 2040. The current plan was drafted in 2009 with a horizon of 2030, and focused on making better use of existing resources and replacing aging vessels and terminals rather than system expansion. Much of what was outlined has been accomplished: New vessels have been built, replacing many of the oldest vessels; replacement terminal projects have been started for Colman dock in Seattle and Mukilteo; and reservations have been implemented on San Juan County and Port Townsend routes.
Yet as we all know too well, much work remains to be done. Due to funding constraints, the new vessels were replacements, not additions, leaving WSF critically short of spare boats. When the Yakima hit a log and bent a propeller on April 22, we were left one vessel short for three days because there was literally nothing available to replace it. The Elwha, scheduled to be in the yard for a few weeks for routine maintenance, won’t be back for months after finding extensive corrosion. Many years of under-funding by the Legislature for maintenance is rapidly catching up, yet ferries can’t even spend the available funds because there aren’t enough boats to allow them to be taken out of service for necessary maintenance.
Riders also need to talk about vessel age. The legislative requirement is that ferries have a 60-year lifetime, twice as long as any comparable system. The four boats serving local routes today — Chelan, Yakima, Hyak and Tillikum — are 37, 51, 51 and 59 years old respectively. The 60-year requirement makes vessel construction more expensive, yet a costly midlife refit is still required (but never done for the Hyak, for example). The problem, of course, is that new vessels are so expensive that it literally takes an act of the Legislature to fund each one, there is no ongoing capital program.
Terminals also need attention. Anacortes terminal should be able to remain functional after a 100-year earthquake. However none of our island terminals is expected to survive, there won’t be anywhere for the ferries to dock. WSF has said that some terminals in the system will get seismic refits during this plan period, and we need to ask which ones. And we need the second slip in Friday Harbor upgraded to a vehicle slip so that the interisland doesn’t have to sit around and wait.
No one knows if this plan will include any expansion in service, or simply repeat the directive to “make better use” of existing resources. Yet WSF is forecasting a 30 percent growth in vehicle traffic, and 37 percent for local routes, specifically. There have already been reservations which have shifted traffic to earlier or later boats, but what next? Peak-hour pricing and other financial incentives were part of the previous plan, but not funded. Should more vessels, or longer service hours, be part of this plan?
If you have an opinion on any of this, come ask questions and make yourself heard at this series of open houses.