When it comes to getting around in Western Washington, it’s complicated

By Morf Morford, Tacoma Daily Index

If you look at a map of Washington or North America, Washington, or at least the upper left corner of it, is, to put it mildly, not like the rest of the continent.

From the southern reaches of Puget Sound to the farthest fragments of Alaska, the west coast map looks like a photo of a sculpture that someone dropped and shattered.

Unlike many regions with ocean-facing shores, our west coast is dense with islands, “geographical anomalies”, waterways and mountain ranges. Getting around in, or providing transportation in such a terrain can be complicated, unreliable and expensive.

Washington State has America’s largest and most comprehensive ferry system. It links 20 terminals with ten routes and a fleet of 21 vessels stretching across Puget Sound, with daily sailings from its most southerly terminal at Point Defiance in Tacoma to Anacortes, the San Juan Islands and Sidney, British Columbia.

For many of us in Western Washington, ferries are a near-constant on our horizons if not our daily or holiday schedules.

But, as with almost everything, the closer we look, the more complicated it gets.

If you think a short-staffed restaurant is a problem, consider the immensity of an inadequately staffed ferry.

Ferries are, for many islands, the primary, if not exclusive point of contact with the rest of the world.

And, as you may have noticed, the waters and winds across Puget Sound (or the Salish Sea) can be restless and unpredictable – even dangerous.

And if you think a car problem is bad when you are stuck on the side of a highway, consider the prospect of a floundering sea-worthy vehicle on the water or stuck in a port because of the breakdown of just one of the multitude of mechanical parts that keeps a boat – and an entire system – in motion.

And if you think a state-wide system is complicated

Pierce County is one of four counties in Washington with an independent county-run ferry system. These regional, one-route systems are funded and operated by county governments. Mostly.

Funding comes from passenger fare box receipts; local county road funds; a portion of the statewide counties’ share of the Motor Vehicle Fuel Tax (MVFT) shared by the three county ferries on Puget Sound; and a subsidy from the Washington State Department of Transportation for the Wahkiakum County ferry.

Potential alternative/future/emergency sources of funding for capital expenditures for the county ferries include federal transportation funds; state Public Works Trust Fund loans; state grants administered by the County Road Administration Board; and local county road funds.

In other words, responsibility and funding is even more convoluted – and sometimes, unreliable.

Keep in mind, that for some, if not most islands, ferries are the only way to connect with the mainland.

Bainbridge and Whidbey Islands are connected by bridges and ferries. Some islands, like Vashon have both northern and southern ferry terminals. Others, like the San Juan Islands, and several others, are entirely dependent on a fully functional ferry system.

Fun fact: After the I-90 Mercer Island bridge was built, the Cross Sound Bridge Bill (1953), approved construction of a bridge to, and across the northern end of Vashon Island. A 1952 King County Planning Commission study, “Vashon Island Story,” projected a population of 50,000 for Vashon (it had a population of under 11,000 in 2020), numerous additional schools and parks, and an industrial area on north Maury Island.

The bridge would have completed a long awaited cross-sound highway system and stop forever Vashon’s dependence on unreliable, expensive and trouble-plagued ferries. To put it simply, the highway never happened.

Those trouble-plagued ferries allowed a distinct culture to emerge on Vashon. With a mix of isolation and access, Vashon has become an arts and culture scene (in a rural context) like no other.


Washington’s county ferries

Besides a variety of public and private auto and passenger-only ferries in the State of Washington, four counties operate ferries as part of their local transportation network:

Pierce County operates two ferries on Puget Sound connecting Anderson and Ketron Islands with the mainland at Steilacoom. Skagit County operates one ferry on Puget Sound connecting Guemes Island with Fidalgo Island (connected by bridge) at Anacortes.

Whatcom County operates one ferry connecting Lummi Island with the mainland at Gooseberry Point, north and west of Bellingham. Editor’s note: I lived on Lummi Island and took this ferry many times. At best it holds 20 cars. Or a truck or two and ten cars.

In and around Bellingham, you could always tell who lived on Lummi Island; the roofs of their vehicles were rusty. Crossing the north Sound could feel like going through a car-wash, with saltwater gushing across your vehicle. A passenger-only ferry was available for emergency back-up.

Wahkiakum County operates one ferry on the Columbia River, connecting Puget Island (near Cathlamet) with Westport, Oregon. This route crosses the Columbia River between the Astoria-Megler Bridge (43 miles to the west) and the Longview Bridge (26 miles to the east).

These ferries, in most cases, are life-lines. At least until staffing issues, weather or mechanical problems intervene – as they often do. You might consider ferry systems as the water version of our highways, with both state and local jurisdictions and responsibilities.

The operation of ferries by counties which carry vehicles are considered to be an arena of the county road system. The docks and transfer spans are classified as bridges for funding eligibility purposes. The ferries themselves are considered extensions of the adjoining county roads. Supporting facilities such as parking lots, vehicle holding lanes, and passenger waiting areas, are considered an integral part of the ferry system and, therefore, ancillary facilities to the county road system.

Many in Eastern Washington, with far fewer ferries (and no state ferries) have complained about the cost-per-mile of ferries. To “compensate” the eastern citizens, most Washington State ferries are named after eastside counties.

Revised Codes of Washington

If you are interested in the legal minutia of who owns/is responsible for what aspect of county ferries, here are some relevant legal codes and guidelines;

RCW 36.54 – Describes the general authority and limitations to own and operate ferries. Also includes language pertaining to the creation and operation of a ferry district.

RCW 47.56.725 – Describes the annual operating deficit reimbursement shared among Pierce, Skagit, and Whatcom counties, administered by the state.

RCW 46.68.090 (2)(h) – MVFT allocation to counties, with provision for funds pertaining to 47.56.725 WSDOT operating deficit distribution to the counties.

WAC 468-22 WSDOT administration of county ferry franchises, tolls, and financial assistance.

Beyond state jurisdiction

As public transportation conveyances, ferries are subject to various U.S. Coast Guard requirements. The vessels operating in a salt water environment must be inspected annually, and at least once every two years the inspection must be out-of-water (drydocked) for hull inspection and maintenance. Crew sizes are mandated by the vehicle and passenger capacities. Records of each sailing and operational event must be logged by date and time, including vehicle and passenger counts.

The Island life

To put it mildly, island life is not for everyone. Depending on the vagaries (and schedule) of a ferry system can be frustrating, expensive and, in some cases life-threatening.

If the ferry is out of service, or if you have an emergency after operation hours, a helicopter might be your only option. Or, as in the case of Lummi Island, outside of Bellingham (and near a major university) parties could (and often did, I am told) get wild with no police available until the next day’s ferry.

Ferries are expensive – for users and for municipalities. But they are also essential. Maintenance and operation costs can reach millions of dollars a year, even for county ferries. Bridges are often impractical, if not impossible.

There is no excuse for deferred maintenance. Lives and livelihoods literally depend on fully functional ferries.