The Elwha sits docked at the Sidney, B.C., ferry terminal. The vessel was one of only two with Washington State Ferries that could travel internationally until it was retired in April. 

It isn’t the first time that the ferry route between Anacortes and Sidney, B.C. faced a tentative future, but the cost of keeping the service going with the aging Washington State Ferries fleet could mean the end of the nearly century-old “auto highway” — at least a publicly funded one.

Several organizations and panels are discussing the option of privatizing the Anacortes-Sidney, B.C., ferry route, which has been in service since 1922.

Earlier this year, the Legislature authorized funds to examine the route and identify the pros and cons of keeping it going or handing it over to a private business, Washington State Ferries spokesman Ian Sterling said.

All the information collected through that research will likely be presented to the Legislature in the next few months, he said. Then, leaders will decide what happens next.

One barrier to continuing the route is a lack 

of vessels, he said. As of this year, only two vessels could legally travel to and from Canada.

One, the M/V Chelan, is currently on an Anacortes-San Juan Islands route. The other was the M/V Elwha, an aging vessel that the Legislature decided this year to no longer keep funding. Despite spending over $20 million in 2018 to repair its passenger deck, the Elwha also had corroded steel in the vehicle deck that needed repair.

Rather than commit more money to a vessel that was by then 53 years old, the Elwha was taken out of service in April.

If the Anacortes-Sidney route continues through Washington State Ferries, significant investments will be needed to make sure another vessel can travel to international waters. That way, if something happens with one boat, service is not interrupted, Sterling said.

New Olympic-class vessels cost well over $100 million each, according to the state Department of Transportation


A history of


Leaders in Anacortes and Victoria talked for years of opening a ferry route between Fidalgo and Vancouver islands in the early 1900s and did so in April 1922.

“Anacortes becomes this month the American terminus of an auto highway, connected up with Vancouver Island system by auto ferry to Sidney, 35 minutes by paved road from Victoria, and three hours steaming from this city,” a March 9, 1922, article in the Anacortes American states.

More than 175 dignitaries made that first trip. In recent years, the opening of the spring season has brought with it a party featuring the mayors, town criers and other officials from both Anacortes and Sidney.

But the route has often come under fire several times throughout its history.

Anacortes had to defend its iconic route from Bellingham as early as 1927, according to Anacortes American archives.

“The state took over ferry operations in 1951, intending the move to be temporary until bridges could be built. Ferries got older and the bridges never came, and problems have intensified since the 1970s, with a series of financial crises perpetually knocking ferry upgrades off funding lists. In 1977 the Sidney run was slated for termination because the cash-strapped state had no money for infrastructure. Similar efforts, for similar reasons, followed in 1997, 2002 — and 2009,” a 2009 story reported.

Each time the Legislature has challenged the Sidney route, citing a lack of domestic riders and too much upkeep costs, residents of both Anacortes and Sidney have made their voices heard. In 1997, more than 200 people testified in Olympia about saving the ferry.

This time, some state senators are again asking if the route to Sidney is worth it for Washington.

State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, asked in February if the money couldn’t be spent a better way.

At the time, state Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, spoke against the idea of ending the run and turning it over to a private company. She noted that a private company might choose to somewhere other than Anacortes. That would cause a big hit to the city, said Lovelett, a former Anacortes City Council member.

Newspapers on Vancouver Island published stories earlier this year about the potentially drastic impact reducing the ferry route could have on that area, including money spent in Sidney by travelers from the U.S. and the lease money for the ferry terminal that goes to the town of Sidney.


Local reaction

Anacortes Mayor Laurie Gere said in an email this week that she is working with state leaders to find a solution, one that keeps the ferry coming to and from Anacortes, even down one ferry boat.

“The privatization of the route would be a sad, but reasonable short term solution provided the route and the service remained in Anacortes,” she wrote in her email.

The route has a huge economic impact on this region, with an estimated $20 million spent per year in a five-county region and 143 jobs supported, she wrote.

Anacortes is already planning a “grand celebration” for the 100th anniversary of the ferry run with leaders in Sidney, Gere wrote.

“Sidney and Anacortes are sister cities,” she said in her email. “We share so much: the Salish Sea, our collective history, culture and lifelong friendships. This ferry route and adequate boat capacity must be maintained on so many levels, anything less would be a tragedy.”

The San Juan County Economic Development Council is currently hosting a survey for Anacortes residents to hear about the potential of privatizing ferry service to Canada.

The ferry run now includes a stop in Friday Harbor.

According to the development council, about 20% of each run to Sidney is made up of freight and vehicle traffic bound for the San Juan Islands. International rules would make it very difficult for a private company to make the same stop in Friday Harbor, losing some contact for those living on the island.

The development council wants to hear thoughts on whether a change to private boats would positive or negatively impact people in this region. The survey is posted on its Facebook page.

Several panels of stakeholders and staff are also discussing impacts on service and policy, Sterling said. All that data will come together so the Legislature can make a decision, he said.

Until the decision happens, the ferry system will keep serving the people of the Anacortes and San Juan areas.

“We plan to just operating as normal until then,” Sterling said.

The Sidney run is not currently in operation, however, because all nonessential travel is stopped to and from Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic. When it does operate, it makes money in the summer months when more tourists are traveling, Sterling said.

Last year, the Anacortes to Sidney route carried 92,604 riders by Sept. 9.

(1) comment


The $20 million annual economic impact of the Sidney ferry run is almost certainly overstated. With the operation during 40 weeks each year, that $20 million translates into $500,000 per week, or about $70,000 each and every day. It strains credibility to believe that the few riders to and from Sidney could possibly impact local economies by hundreds of dollars each.

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