Allowing a private company to operate a ferry from Anacortes to Sidney, British Columbia, would not result in cost savings for the Washington State Ferries and have negative economic impacts on the region, a legislative study released last month found.
A bill was proposed during the 2020 legislative session to permit a private ferry to operate between Anacortes and Sidney, amid discussions of the retirement of the Elwha ferry from the State Ferries fleet.
The retirement of the Elwha last spring left the Sidney route with only one ferry, the Chelan, equipped with Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) equipment that allows it to make the international crossing. Two ferries are preferred for reliable service.
The retirement of the Elwha has yet to have an effect on the route as services were suspended last year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
While the bill did not pass, a study was commissioned to look at the feasibility of private ferry service.
The main points of the study are:
— Private ferry service to Sidney is legal and feasible, and private operators are interested in providing service.
— Even if the Sidney route is privatized, State Ferries still needs to replace the Elwha to ensure ferry service isn’t disrupted across all routes.
— If a private operator was to establish an international run from Bellingham, there would be a negative economic impact on Anacortes, and a positive impact on Bellingham.
— Privatization of the route would have a negative economic impact on the San Juan Islands, because it is unlikely a private operator would be able to stop in the islands.
— State Ferries stands to lose between $900,000 and $2.3 million in net annual operating revenue should it no longer operate the Sidney route.
— Fares for a private ferry would likely increase from current State Ferries fares.
— While a private ferry route may support additional maritime jobs, they would likely be non-union jobs.
Those who took part in the study included legislators from the 40th District, the city of Anacortes, Port of Anacortes, San Juan County, the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County, Clipper Vacations, State Ferries and others.
Anacortes Mayor Laurie Gere said she does not support privatization of the ferry system, and that the state needs to provide adequate funding to rebuild its aging ferry fleet.
“A private ferry would not serve the community in the same manner and would look at alternate routes to Canada which could possibly take the (Sidney) route out of Anacortes,” she said in an email. “We would lose local jobs, tourism and sales tax revenue.”
She said the number of Anacortes-to-Sidney runs may have to be reduced until another ferry is available.
“One run a day still keeps this important route intact,” she said.
State Sen. Liz Lovelett, D-Anacortes, and state Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, also do not support privatizing the route.
Lovelett said the study showed that the state makes money on the international run during the summer, and eliminating the route does not result in cost savings.
In 2019, 115,836 people rode the Anacortes-to-Sidney ferry, according to statistics from the state Department of Transportation.
Lovelett said the state’s workforce would also be negatively impacted if requirements were amended to allow a private operator to use a foreign-built vessel without a state pilot.
She is also worried about cutting off access of residents of the San Juan Islands to Canada as a private ferry would not likely stop in the San Juan Islands.
“I think it’s really hard to argue there is much benefit to privatizing it,” Lovelett said.
Ramel said privatization would result in a significant price increase for passengers, and negatively impact union jobs, the San Juan Islands’ economy, and Skagit County’s economy if the run is moved to Bellingham.
He said legislators need to continue working toward funding a backup ferry that complies with SOLAS standards to ensure reliable service on the route.
Ramel, who was appointed to the House Transportation Committee this year, said the Legislature has funded a second study on converting a new ferry or existing vessel to SOLAS standards.
“We will know a little bit more about what the cost of that would be and be able to factor that into our budget,” he said.
The privatization study estimated that the cost to equip a vessel for SOLAS is $20 million. The total construction cost for a new 144-car Olympic-class ferry is between $122 million and $144 million, based on Department of Transportation figures from the last four ferries built between 2014 and 2018.
Ian Sterling, spokesperson for State Ferries, said the state has funding for three more ferries — which will be hybrid-electric and run on battery-power — but a new boat is not expected to enter service for several years.
State Ferries is facing a problem of a shrinking fleet as boats age out before they are replaced.
With the retirement of the Elwha, the State Ferries fleet has 21 boats, and 19 are needed to operate summer service, with two out for maintenance at any given time, Sterling said.