Sidney ferry run unlikely to return until 2030

The Anacortes/Sidney, B.C. ferry run is unlikely to return to service until 2030, according to Washington State Ferries.

In the Feb. 28 “Service Restoration Plan Progress Report,” WSF came out publicly for the first time acknowledging “WSF does not anticipate being able to restore service on the Anacortes/Sidney, B.C. route any sooner than spring 2030.” It is due to the lack of an available vessel and crew.

The news of the continued suspension of the international run, with stops in Friday Harbor, was met with dismay and concern throughout the region, but especially by hard-hit communities such as Sidney, Anacortes and Friday Harbor.

Alternatives for providing ferry service to Canada from the islands are being discussed and considered by a number of private companies, both locally and regionally, but nothing has been formalized yet. Sterling acknowledged to the Journal that now might be a good time for private enterprises to look at alternative transboundary options outside the existing ferry service.

Ian Sterling, Director of Communications for WSF, admits to continued, chronic struggles with getting the Anacortes/San Juan Islands ferry service back into reliable and consistent service.

The progress report states the ferry service is incrementally adding service to meet increasing demand as the ferry system recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and responds to ongoing crew and vessel availability challenges.

The report further states a return to full capacity of the system is dependent on several variables, including the trajectory of the pandemic and ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on the workforce; ridership levels and accommodating the seasonal increase in summer peak season ridership; the ability of WSF to recruit, hire and train new employees to fill key positions; the rate of retirements and other separations that contribute to overall staff levels; and lack of vessels due to unanticipated breakdowns and an aging fleet.

“Because these variables are continuously shifting as the pandemic evolves,” the WSF report states, “it is exceedingly difficult to pinpoint an exact date when ferry service will return to ‘normal.’ WSF is currently operating on an ‘Alternative Service Plan,’ a reduced level of service that is sustainable and provides predictability while WSF works to replenish and realign its resources. As crew and vessel resources become available over time, WSF plans to restore ferry service on a route-by-route basis in four stages.”

The Anacortes/San Juan Islands runs are at the top of the list for route prioritization, according to WSF, but riders of the route wouldn’t know it based on the chronic cancellations and delays the island runs have been experiencing, especially recently, and for quite some time now.

The ferry service is the first to admit that the San Juan Islands runs are not reliable. The restoration report states that “while WSF is funded to provide pre-pandemic levels of service, in every other respect the ferry system has shrunk.”

A statement in the report adds “WSF had 24 vessels five years ago, but due to vessel retirements there are now only 21 active vessels in the fleet—an insufficient number for reliable service even without the pandemic.”

Although the plan includes the statement that another vessel, the Tillikum, is due to be retired in 2023, WSF staff say the current Governor’s budget working its way through the legislative process includes funding the aging Tillikum through 2027.

WSF also writes that “it takes multiple years to build new vessels, and WSF will not be able to add to the fleet quickly enough to address the loss of vessels due to recent and planned retirements.”

During a Ferry Advisory Committee Meeting held March 10, John Vezina, WSF’s Chief Revenue Officer, stated that “we have gone from 25 boats in 2016 to 21. We need 19 in the summer to operate everything, including the Sidney route. As we look at the age of our vessels and the fact that by now, based on the long-range plan, we should be in construction and getting ready to replace the three oldest ones, including the Tillikum on the inter Island route …we now don’t expect the first new vessel until 2027. And with the age of these boats and needing 19 … we are doubtful there will be a time where we actually have 21 boats available.”

Vezina then added, “When we get the first of those boats back in 2027 we’ll have to retire the Tillikum, Yakima and Kaleetan. The legislature has us retire boats as we get a new one, so we don’t get ahead until about 2030. Having said that, we are completely funded to operate (Sidney) service. There is no way we can cancel it, only the legislature can, and there is no interest on their part in canceling it. So they have asked us to look at options like leasing a boat. In the past, we’ve looked at options for leasing domestically, and we haven’t been able to find one, but we’re going to take another look at that. While we won’t have the vessel capacity to return until 2030 there is no lack of desire to be flexible and creative and figure out ways that we can continue to get people up there.”