Private ferry route may replace WSDOT service

Private ferry route may replace WSDOT service
A consulting group is conducting a study on behalf of the Joint Transportation Committee of a possible private ferry route from northwestern Washington to Sidney, British Columbia. Photo; freepik.com

While King County looks at ferry service across Lake Washington, the state Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) is exploring the idea of a private ferry route from Northwest Washington to British Columbia. Aside from possible legislative action necessary to permit it, a consulting group tasked with studying the route must determine the economic impacts to both British Columbia and the San Juan Islands should the existing Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) ferry route be removed.

Although private ferry companies such as Clipper already offer trips from Seattle to Victoria, B.C. on passenger-only vessels, the study examines the possibility of allowing auto ferries to make the trip.

However, one of the constraints is the pilotage restrictions by which vessels are required to have a licensed pilot on board. The state Board of Pilotage sets the pilotage rates but can also provide exemptions to those rules. U.S. vessels sailing into foreign jurisdictions can apply for a waiver, but it is not guaranteed.

Another limitation is that private ferries can’t operate within 10 miles of a WSDOT ferry; currently the state agency has a route that travels from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C., where the new route would also go. WSDOT’s route is currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 transportation budget proviso funding the JTC study was the product of a bill sponsored this year by Sen. Curtis King (R-14) that would have allowed the Board of Pilotage to provide a pilotage waiver for auto ferries that are less than 3,000 gross international tons and no longer than 200 feet in overall length.

Proponents of that bill pointed to the recent retirement of the Elwha ferry that sailed the Anacortes-Sidney route, arguing that a private ferry service could make up for the loss of that vessel. However, the proposal drew opposition from a variety of groups including the Board of Pilotage Commissioners and members of the San Juan County Council.

One of the concerns for San Juan Island stakeholders is the loss of tourism, as the current WSDOT ferry from Anacortes also has a route that stops there. However, some private ferry lines are contemplating establishing the new route out of Bellingham, which means the island would get bypassed, though other locations on Fidalgo Island are also under consideration by the JTC; the 2020 transportation budget proviso doesn’t specify in which city or area the routes must start and end.

Per the 2020 budget proviso, the JTC study must examine the following:

  • Economic impacts to the Anacortes area and San Juan Islands;
  • Expected impacts to ferry fares between Washington and British Columbia;
  • Expected impacts to family wage marine industry jobs; and
  • Expected impacts to Washington state ferry ridership and revenue.

“The point of the study is to suss all those things out,” JTC Staff member Paul Neal told the committee. “What would be necessary to make this happen? Would it require any action by the legislature? If the state continues to run the Anacortes to Sidney route, there’s not much of a business case to be made for duplicating that service.”

The JTC report is due to the state legislature by Feb 15, 2021.

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