Public subsidy would be required for public transit, passenger ferry

How to provide and pay for convenient, regularly scheduled public transit and passenger ferry service is a complex subject. But there were no naysayers Sept. 17 at the regional Transportation Summit – only about 180 islanders and others offering ideas on how to make those services happen here.

Those ideas will be organized and disseminated soon via press, Internet and public access TV. One inescapable conclusion: Public transit and passenger ferry service will require public subsidy to keep them affordable. But most participants said the advantages would outweigh a tax increase.

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.

The summit was sponsored by Cascadia Center for Regional Development, Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, Port of Friday Harbor, San Juan County, San Juan County Economic Development Council, San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce, San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, San Juan Island Library and the Town of Friday Harbor.

Participants included local officials, local transit providers, regional transportation planners and interested residents.

Transportation has been a major topic of the regional North Sound Connecting Communities Project, a coalition of local governments, since about 2001. Since that time, 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.

Passenger ferries were once common in the region, said Bruce Agnew of Cascadia Center. He told of the history of the Mosquito Fleet, a fleet of passenger vessels that was so-named because the vessels were a competitive headache for larger ferry services.

Four counties now operate their own ferry services. King County property owners pay 5.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation to fund ferry service between Fauntleroy and Vashon Island. Pierce County provides ferry service between Steilacoom and Anderson and Ketron islands. Skagit County provides ferry service between Anacortes and Guemes Island. Whatcom County provides ferry service between Gooseberry Point and Lummi Island.

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.

Agnew said passenger ferries are important in emergencies as well. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, passenger ferries were the only way from and to Manhattan Island, he said. Passenger ferries were also vital transportation providers after the Oct. 17, 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area.

Passenger ferry service between Friday Harbor and Bellingham was tested, thanks to a federal grant, in December-to-March two years ago. Some 3,817 people took the service, provided by the Island Commuter, according to the Port of Friday Harbor.

That was in the slow season, without advertising. Of those passengers, one-third took the passenger ferry to visit relatives in Whatcom County, Friday Harbor Port Commissioner Greg Hertel said.

With a subsidy, passenger ferry fare would be about $30 round trip, Hertel said. Getting from point A to point B would take 50 minutes. The first ferry would arrive in Bellingham at 8:30 a.m.; there would be additional runs mid-morning, early afternoon and late afternoon. Passengers could take their bicycles and could ride Whatcom County transit at no additional charge.

(Consider this option to Sea-Tac: You could also take the morning ferry to Fairhaven and catch a shuttle to Bellingham Airport in time for an Allegiant Air roundtrip flight to, say, Phoenix, Ariz., for less than $400 total.)

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.

Those listening to the presentation broke into discussion groups and talked about possible barriers to service – and how to overcome those barriers. Some participants foresaw a resistance to paying more taxes. Some suggested that the matter be placed on the ballot.

Barrier-breaking ideas: provide free parking in Friday Harbor and Bellingham, obtain a demonstration grant so the service can be tested, and educate the public about the benefits of the service.

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, he 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.

(For more information about the proposed passenger ferry, click here )

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