Grassroots efforts to change the ferry system | Guest Column

On Wednesday, Oct 11, in Friday Harbor, ten very enthused, passionate and smart folks gathered for a discussion group meeting with the goal of understanding the current ferry situation and moving forward with strategies and goals. The lively meeting produced several avenues for both immediate and long-term goals. i was among the attendees. At the close of the meeting, attendees voted to name the group F.L.O.W. – “Ferry Lovers of Washington” – an ode to a past beloved island journalist, Howard Schoenberger. The group plans to move forward with specific action goals and most likely post their activities on this Facebook page.

Despite the seemingly bottomless pit the Washington State Ferry Commission and WSDOT have allowed the ferry system to fall into, there is hope that at a grassroots level (and I mean a true grassroots level, not what the WSDOT “community participation” website page states), change can be had in a timely manner. At the meeting, two movements forward stood out to me:

1. An aid program involving the local San Juan County Red Cross chapter, the Sheriff’s Office and local hospitality businesses to assist stranded passengers and motorists when a last boat on a given day is canceled.

2. A private water taxi service gaining popularity to transport folks intra-island (not to and from Anacortes, as that is a political and strategic hornet’s nest).

Though these two programs do not address the serious issues of old boats, lack of crew, reservations and scheduling, they are tangible and should be enthusiastically supported by all islanders.

My opinion: Officials from local county government, through local state representatives, state senators and up through the Governor’s office have largely issued platitudes, only occasionally answering emails and making appearances at public gatherings (such as a recent widely attended public forum on Vashon Island). to be frank, the perfect storm of decay and neglect for “the largest ferry system in America” (not my words, wsdot’s own claim) started decades ago. most politicians are afraid to rock the boat, leary to suggest meaningful reform and fall back to the usual bureaucratic surveys, creation of local “committees” to “tap into the minds and hearts of locals” (my emphasis) i.e. the various Ferry Advisory Committees, and the FROG survey’s, which islanders have tired of years ago. Occasionally, WSDOT sends representatives for in-person meetings with community groups. This is not enough.

It is my informed belief now, after months of reading the posts, discussion threads, rants and suggestions on this Facebook page, that the current abysmal WSDOT ferry situation is here to stay for at least the next three to five years and maybe longer (witness the Sydney run projected return date – 2030). Hybrid boats? Passenger-only ferries? Privatization? All ideas bandied about and subject to the usual political legislative morass and ultimately dependent on the huge elephant in the room…budget. This summer I heard U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, stand on a Washington Ferry dock and say that the absurd ferry cancellation rate this summer was not “excusable” and that the Feds are sending 2.4-2.9 billion dollars of infrastructure monies. Will that build more eight-line highways to serve larger constituencies and elect more state officials? Will that re-do bridges that are falling apart? Our ferries are a state highway and our “bridges” are also falling apart.

I started the Facebook group “Last Boast Left” June 24 for a selfish reason…I wanted to read the anecdotal “horror” stories (as well as the not-so-prevalent happy tales) of a myriad of ferry travelers in one social media location and I asked members to engage in constructive dialogue. Both requests have happened. As I read today, Over one thousand people joined the group. It has become a meeting place, a sounding board and a resource of information. I am proud to have helped become a catalyst for change.

However, just as it was easy to start a Facebook group and just as it is easy to click to join, it is another thing to become an activist. I encourage all islanders, visitors, local politicians, businesses and anyone who finds themselves on a ferry boat having encountered a late sailing, a canceled sailing, a difficult reservation experience, a schedule that doesn’t work in today’s world, an expired book of car and driver tickets… (Did I miss anything?) to shout 0ut…. “optima fortuna” – may the best fortune await we who “chose to live on an island” and to those hundreds of ferry boat workers who report to work every day and give their all to get us from point A to B.

Respectfully, sincerely and warmly,

Fred Yockers