Ferry saga continues | Editorial

Editor’s note: This editorial was written prior to the Elwha going out of service on Aug. 16.

We’re not done talking about our ferry frustration.

But let’s start with something positive: a word of thanks.

It’s been a stressful summer. Multiple boat breakdowns and emergency schedules have resulted in horrendous wait times, canceled plans, frustrated drivers and tired children. We want to say thank you to the ferry workers who answer a myriad of questions from confused patrons and make sure the lines are managed and the boats are loaded. It’s a hard job during the smoothest of tourist seasons, and this year has been anything but – so we offer sincere gratitude for your ability to weather the storm.

Now on to our complaints.

On Aug. 6, the Samish, which was built in 2015, had a propeller shaft coupling failure, returning the route to just four vessels. This is just a few weeks after the Yakima and Kitsap were out, leaving the San Juans with limited sailings for 13 days. On Aug. 9, a repaired Yakima returned and the regular schedule resumed. During those four days of the alternate schedule, it was chaos at the terminals. The sheriff’s office and Orcas Island Fire and Rescue helped with crowd control. On Lopez, the ferry line was backed up several miles and travelers were delayed more than 10 hours without easily accessible bathrooms or food service.

Yes, the brand new boat breaking down was a fluke, but the ferry system needs a strong fleet and better contingency plans. Currently, there are four boats out of commission for mechanical work or upgrades: Samish, Salish, Kittitas and Spokane. That leaves 18 boats to service the entire state during peak season.

There are some roadblocks to building new vessels. According to WSF representatives, state legislature does not want another ferry to be built until there is a long-range plan. The plan is due in January 2019. Design and construction of a new vessel can only begin once the plan is approved. That means it’s likely a new ferry will not be completed until the mid-2020s.

In addition, state law requires all WSF vessels to be built in Washington. According to the Washington Policy Center, the state government is spending an average of $52 million more per ferry than its Canadian counterpart. Vigor is the only boat manufacturer in Washington that is qualified to build the ferries.

We think this RCW needs to be repealed, and we agree with San Juan County Councilman Rick Hughes that not having a competitive bidding process means we pay more for vessels. In addition, we lose the chance to receive federal grant money by limiting construction to Washington state.

To add insult to injury, the Washington State Transportation Commission has just announced ferry fare increases that will be implemented over the next two years. The commission is required to ensure ferry fares generate $381 million in operating revenue between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2019, as required in the two-year state transportation budget.

We applaud Hughes for sending a stern letter to Governor Jay Inslee and Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar, requesting a meeting to discuss the service outages in our county.

Hughes wrote, “These recent outages should be foreshadowing what will happen if WSF budgets continue as planned. WSF needs to build new boats every two years for the next 20 years and eliminate the $350,000,000 in deferred maintenance that is currently on the books.”

Inslee has yet to respond.

Hughes said most of the other routes in the state bring in enough money to pay for operating costs while the San Juans typically only cover 55 percent of their expenses. It’s not like WSF is making money hand over fist from our routes; in fact, they are subsidizing us. However, we live in what is called a “donor county,” meaning the amount of money we contribute in taxes far exceeds what the state returns to us in services. Our assessed property value is so high that despite our low property taxes, we are the largest contributor of state revenue per capita. And our sales tax isn’t too shabby either – at least until tourists stop coming here because the ferries are so unreliable.

It’s time we were treated with the respect we have earned. We rely on the state ferry system for our financial livelihoods, for our medical care and for our access to off-island services. We deserve a higher quality state highway.