This letter is to request your support for water transportation solutions in the San Juan Islands which can be implemented today or in the very near future.
Our group of concerned citizens recently issued a press release regarding our efforts to provide emergency, passenger-only ferry (POF) service within San Juan County. As part of this effort, we have been on call to provide vital transportation to our island community when Washington State Ferry (WSF) has left us stranded — the last major outage being three consecutive days during Thanksgiving — a critical time for family travel.
For those of us living in the San Juan Islands, the state of WSF is a crisis. Thousands in our community rely on WSF as the state highway system — for school, work, healthcare, access to government, and basic necessities of life. Our need is urgent, has been ongoing for years, and requires stop-gap solutions until more long-term remedies are actualized. WSF reports just 9 of the current 21 ferries are in “good shape”, with the remainder due or overdue for retirement. The system requires 19 operational boats and we have too often dipped below that number.
While we thank you for the improved crewing program, and the allocation of funding for new green ferries, these longer-term solutions do nothing to address our immediate need. Both media and government sources predict the first real crewing improvements to be four to five years out and new boats are estimated to have a first delivery date in 2028 or later. The complex, new technology involved with the electric ferries could mean operational delays even after delivery. We are asking for funding and your consideration of creative alternatives to the ongoing WSF operational issues impacting our island community.
Early last month, community leaders and the San Juan County Council released an Open Letter to bring attention to our plight, which included suggested solutions. One recommendation is state assistance in a county POF. We have been operating this service independently for our community. The funding has been wholly on a donation basis, by both sponsors and riders.
We are seeking $100,000 to fund a POF pilot project for interisland service in San Juan County. This project could begin very soon after funding — as early as Spring 2024 — by scaling the service we already have experience providing. A state-subsidized fare would provide for more consistent service to more people.
Having researched the legal requirements for this emergency service, we recommend a P3 model funded government-to-government — either to San Juan County or an applicable port authority. Currently, we are operating on a charter basis and are exempt from RCW 81.84 Commercial Ferry Permits. The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission has indicated an emergency 180-day license under RCW 81.84.070 would be appropriate if it is determined the service complies with the permit statute. Additionally, the often-quoted RCW 47.60.120, the Infringement on Existing Ferry Routes was amended in 2003 to exclude POF service. As a P3, the project will have appropriate safeguards and accountability. If necessary, we are certain the Governor’s office can streamline any approvals that may be required to meet this emergency.
For system-wide enhancements to address WSF service needs we would ask for your consideration of the following:
1. Fast track the build of one or two conventional diesel ferries using the existing plans from the Suquamish, delivered in 2018, or other existing plans WSF deems appropriate for operation within two years.
2. Acquire an existing non-USA-built ferry for the re-opening of the Anacortes-Sidney route. It may be possible to lease a suitable Canadian-owned vessel (or other sourced vessel), to help us through our current boat issues. The Jones Act would make this vessel legal on one route within the WSF system. If implemented, this additional vessel could relieve another boat from service in SJC and carry significant local traffic from Anacortes to SJC legally.
We believe these vessel acquisition ideas, if acted upon as if we are in an emergency, could result in up to three additional boats within two years, and alleviate operational stress on the WSF system. By offering solutions today to the transportation needs of our community, you will minimize the impact on residents and the economy resulting from insufficient service levels and bad press reports. While we wholeheartedly endorse the de-carbonization goals of WSF, we also know our community cannot withstand delay or continued dysfunction. Without action, we see 4-5 more years of the current issues being recycled again and again.
With the Governor’s budget to be released next week, please consider whatever you can do in support of this appropriation request. If you need any supporting information, don’t hesitate to contact us, or contact the San Juan County Council. We thank you for your service and continued attention to our essential needs.
Community Water Taxi: Tom Bridge, Ed Andrews, Carey Eskridge, Justin Paulsen and Sandy Playa.