Regional transportation authority weighs passenger-only ferry options

A passenger-only ferry service from Bellingham to Friday Harbor may soon be a reality. The North Sound Transportation Alliance discussed the possibility during a panel on July 9.

“The port is very supportive of this. It’s pretty much all benefit for the port and community. No significant foreseeable cost associated with it. So, from the Port of Friday Harbor standpoint and from the facilities-infrastructure standpoint, and a transit standpoint, this is kind of an easy lift on our end,” Port of Friday Harbor Executive Director Todd Nicholson said. “They could start coming literally tomorrow and it would be fine.”

Port of Bellingham Economic Development Specialist John Michener reported that the port is interested in, “the mobility, tourism and accessibility” that a passenger ferry between Bellingham and San Juan Island would provide. The port currently operates the Alaska Marine Highway service out of Fairhaven and could “easily accommodate additional ferry services.”

In January, the Puget Sound Passenger-Only Ferry Study performed by the Puget Sound Regional Council was released. The study, commissioned by Washington State Legislature during its 2019 session, was intended to evaluate the potential demand for passenger-only ferry services around the Puget Sound area. In 2008, the agency conducted a similar study focused only on the central Puget Sound region.

Of the more than 6,000 respondents to the North Sound survey, almost 90% expressed interest in a passenger ferry from Bellingham to Friday Harbor. The proposed vessel would be the $14.8 million 250 passenger boat. Its maximum speed would be 35 knots. The study estimated the route would have a $2 million annual operating cost and carry 21,200 riders annually.

Two ferries would be available for the route seven days a week for six months per year — April through September. Additionally, it would offer four round trips per day. It would be an approximately 50-minute ride, shaving 110 minutes off the current travel time between Bellingham and Friday Harbor, according to the study.

Such a ferry would provide the option of commuting to work to the islands from the mainland or the reverse. Hurdles to the project include the need for a larger, more expensive vessel than ridership demand may require due to the depth of water it will need to cross and low projected ridership, which is heavily affected by seasonal tourism.

Opportunities a passenger ferry along this route would provide include international and domestic economic development; high community interest; transportation resilience; alignment with the 2022 Bellingham Regional Planning Update; potential for privatization; potential year-round service; and the opportunity to connect at Orcas.

Approximately 15% of all North Sound survey respondents expressed interest in an Orcas connection. However, Orcas did not meet all of the requirements and would need modification.

Environmental impacts were also taken into consideration in the study. In 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force identified concerns related to whale-strike risks and underwater noise affecting the Southern residents. The study concluded that current technology can assist passenger-only ferries in limiting underwater noise and utilizing specially-designed water jet propulsion.

Additionally, the study noted tribal fishing rights and culturally significant sites need to be considered when planning a route and landing site for passenger-only ferries in Puget Sound.

In total, 45 route combinations across all 12 Washington countries surrounding Puget Sound were assessed — the majority of which occur in southern Puget Sound, in the Seattle area.

Puget Sound waters were busy with the Mosquito Fleet in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Several steam-powered small craft connected communities throughout the region. The advent of automobile infrastructure lead to the creation of vehicle ferries and ultimately the birth of Washington State Ferries in 1951. From 1986 until 2006, WSF participated in passenger-only ferry service, with Legislature ultimately ceasing the operation.

Existing public passenger-only ferry services in the region include the Kitsap Fast Ferry, Kitsap Transit Foot Ferry and the King County Water Taxi. The Kitsap ferry took three ballot attempts to pass.

“I can just say ditto to what Todd said … We’re really fortunate that the Port of Bellingham that transportation is one of the things we do,” Michener said. “We’d love to support this — we do support it. We’d love to see it going forward. What a great route, right? Between Bellingham and Friday Harbor. What a beautiful place to go in and visit and I can foresee a real tourism boost going forward.”

Washington state law allows counties to form ferry tax districts. However, the possibility of a district crossing multiple counties will need to be investigated.

The Bellingham to Friday Harbor route is considered a tourism route only, which means it may not have enough interest from the Friday Harbor community when it comes to collecting taxes.

Now, NSTA must figure out whether there is community support for the two routes. Currently, there is no funding identified for conducting the necessary basic market research.

“I think it’s a very exciting concept. Who wouldn’t want to go over to the islands in the summertime?” Whatcom Transportation Authority Planning Director Tim Wilder said. “It’s a no-brainer, really, so the question is how do we support that service?”