tProperty taxes may fund passenger ferries
How to provide and pay for convenient, regularly scheduled public transit and passenger ferry service is a complex subject. But about 180 islanders and others offered ideas on how to make those services happen at the regional Transportation Summit on Sept. 17. The summit, at the San Juan County Fairgrounds, provided an opportunity for discussion about improving how we get around the islands and the region.
Discussion topics included inter-island and regional freight mobility, long-term ferry funding, non-motorized transportation, passenger ferries, and tourism transportation management.
Transportation has been a major topic of the regional North Sound Connecting Communities Project, a coalition of local governments, since about 2001. Since then, the region’s population has grown, state ferries have been taken out of service, transportation funding has shrunk and fuel costs have ballooned.
Those issues have given a sense of urgency to local officials and transportation planners’ search for other ways to move the region’s residents around. One idea: A passenger ferry from Bellingham and Friday Harbor, which would give islanders another venue for air travel, health care, school and mainland shopping. They could leave their cars at home because Fairhaven is a hub location for Amtrak, buses, rental cars, and shuttles to Bellingham Airport. Likewise, passengers from Whatcom County could travel to Friday Harbor and leave their cars on the mainland.
The North Sound Connecting Communities Project envisions a passenger ferry as part of a larger picture: The advent of high-speed train service between Bellingham and Everett would open new opportunities for study and work for San Juan Island residents.
Friday Harbor Port Commissioner Greg Hertel, an advocate of passenger ferry service between Friday Harbor and Bellingham, said he estimated his property tax contribution would amount to 22 cents a day, or $80 a year.
Hertel said the service could ultimately be expanded to other islands as facilities there became available; one Orcas Island resident said Brandt’s Landing could accommodate passenger ferry service and that expanding service to other islands would mean more people would share the cost.
Public transit is also seen as a critical offering if islanders are going to ease their dependence on cars, and if visitors are going to leave their cars on the mainland.
Martha Rose, director of Oak Harbor-based Island Transit, said her system is funded by a local sales tax of 6/10s of 1 percent. In May, that tax yielded about $456,000, the Whidbey News Times reported Aug. 6. Riding the bus is free.
Rose said ridership has grown from 161 riders a day at inception in 1987 to 1,400 riders a day a year later to 4,500 riders a day in 2008. She calls the ridership a community on wheels; “We have book clubs on our buses,” she said. About 35 percent of riders are commuters. Rose said public transit can only happen if the public wants it. “It’s a community choice,” she said.
Ed Masters of Orcas Island Shuttle provides transit service from June to Labor Day; the round-trip fare is $6 per rider. He said it costs him about $30 per hour to operate a bus.Masters said he doesn’t get enough local ridership on Orcas Island to support a year-round transit service without subsidies. He said maybe 50 islanders have chosen to ride his bus in the time he’s operated it. There must be government incentives for using transit, Masters said.
Dan Ward of San Juan Transit said he consistently has to borrow money to keep his transit service in operation. One problem: The state Utilities and Transportation Commission decides whether transit services, even those that are privately owned, can raise fares. Ward’s request for a fare increase was turned down, even though his fuel costs have skyrocketed.