Mixed reaction to ferry privatization study

Mixed reaction to ferry privatization study

A new draft study by the state Joint Transportation Committee (JTC) has found that a private ferry route from Northwest Washington to British Columbia would be both feasible and legal. Though private ferries lines have expressed interest in the idea, other local stakeholders warn that replacing the existing Washington State Ferries (WSF) service would have negative economic impacts for the San Juan Islands, which would be bypassed with the potential new private line.

JTC Staff member Paul Neal told the committee at its Dec. 17 meeting that these issues weren’t fully addressed in the study, which was focused on the legality and feasibility questions. However, he noted that “there were a lot of local concerns about this.” In addition to members of the House and Senate Transportation committees and OFM officials, the study’s policy panel and staff work group included representatives from the city of Anacortes, San Juan County, Puget Sound Pilots and the Economic Development Alliance for Skagit County.

“There were pretty strong opposition to the idea of privatization,” Neal said.

Conducting the study for JTC was KPFF Consulting, which examined a potential for a private ferry line from either Anacortes or Fidalgo Island to Victoria, B.C. Marine Transportation Director Michael Anderson told the committee that switching to a private line would have a “modest financial impact, depending on which service scenario is chosen.”

Because of how WSF crews operate in that area, only one permanent position would be lost within the agency, yet it would save $20-$40 million by 2036 in capital investments. The main job hit would be in San Juan County, which currently gets service from WSF. If bypassed, the report estimated that it would lead to a reduction of 18-25 local jobs from reduced visitor spending, which would also mean a reduction in local sales tax revenue. At the same time, the private line would create 26-31 maritime jobs.

It could also be a net loss or gain revenue-wise for the Anacortes area, depending on the vessel size. A 42-car vessel with nine months of service would cost between $90-125 per driver/car and provide roughly 97,000 trips per year. An 80-car vessel would cost $80-$100 per car/driver and offer 132,451 trips annually. Currently WSF charges $60 per car/driver during regular months and $74 during peak months; it also provides 135,000 trips per year.

The report noted that the Anacortes area would be economically affected if the line were based out of Bellingham, instead.

Crucial to the concept feasibility was whether private lines are actually interested in pursuing the idea; the report names various companies including Bay Ferries, Clipper Vacations and BC Ferries. However, Anderson said that the companies would likely need an exemption from current pilotage requirements. Under existing policy, the vessel would need a U.S. pilot on board depending on whether the company is domestic or foreign-based, though Anderson said requiring that for every trip “becomes a very expensive proposition and defeats feasibility”.

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

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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