Ferry Tales: Show Me The Money

Congratulations to John Hopkins as new Guemes Island Ferry Committee member. Whether or not it is a good thing remains to be seen. John will bring a new perspective to the workings of this advisory committee's role with Skagit County. The GIFC never made policy and, in spite of promises to do so, was never chartered by Skagit County.(Unfortunate) This limits the GIFC and whomever sits on it, including John (they only have a voice, the same as you and I - the County has no obligation to act on what they say). Incumbent or newly seated there is still no money for the new ferry.

There appeared to be an actual strategy to this campaign. It made the term “incumbent” almost an obscenity. This, regardless of the fact that the incumbent had more maritime experience, more knowledge of, and more history with our ferry system. Guemes Islanders wanted change and readily listened to propaganda. The game plan seemed to be to state rumors as fact, and be the loudest voice.

We’ve always been divided on matters concerning the Ferry, whether it is schedules, fares, or surcharges. The loud roar (sometime uncivil) of the dissidents was difficult to ignore. The accomplishments of the incumbent during his 25 years of volunteering time and energy to represent Guemes Islanders to Skagit County, not so much.

It also seems as if some of the proponents have attempted to silence  critics or attack them personally at meetings private or public. What about 1st amendment rights?

Citizens of Guemes have always been divided. This time what divides us is a new electric ferry. Neither the County or Guemes have the necessary $21,000,000 to design and build the vessel. The County is looking for loans and grants, from state and federal funding sources. Skagit County recently hired a lobbyist to push that agenda in Olympia. No funding guarantee or even vague promises on any of those fronts. A property taxing district remains a distant possibility, although a bill now in the legistature would require that such a tax be county wide or subject to a vote of the taxed. If we can’t afford the Tesla (new electric/hybrid ferry) and we really want one, we should save the money for it or at least be able to afford the payment the loan would incur.

There are many myths surrounding the new ferry: A bigger boat will carry more cars and ease summer wait times*, it will pay for itself in maintenance savings, there are many entities eager to give us all the money for an electric ferry, and more.

John Hopkins emphasized his support for a bigger, electric ferry. Does the GIFC  plan to help find the money for the ferry? Hopkins supported a Guemes-only property tax but that wouldn't be nearly enough. The surcharge added last year to ferry fares was supposed to accumulate for 40 years to pay for the vessel after this new one wears out. It didn't take long for the County to plan to borrow against half of the potential funds for this next boat.

According to Ken Dahlstedt, the Guemes ferry is too small and the lines too long for the throngs of people that appear during the summer with their SUV’s, towing trailers, boats, and jet skis, etc. Perhaps those summer people could lobby Congress for the money while waiting in the too long lines.

The Ferry Committee is mandated with the task of representing those who use the ferry. They are tasked with allowing all voices and options to be heard and considered. The GIFC must work with a county government and the ferry riders, whose fares pay 65% of operations and maintenance costs of the ferry. It’s a difficult task, and one in which one’s hands are tied in many respects, and that takes a great amount of negotiation, and long-time commitment on a volunteer basis. But the FC is not an offshoot of county operations. It is, in a sense, a watchdog group that helps see the ferry service is efficiently and fairly run with as few interruptions as possible.

There are many serious concerns of the people who ride the Guemes Ferry. I certainly hope that this new Ferry Committee is up to the challenges. Bottom line on the new ferry is “show me the money”. Anyone?

Here’s to ultimate respect for, and love of, Guemes Island.

-Commentary by MJ Andrak

 


*The current capacity of the ferry is 21 cars - less with big trucks. The original proposal was for a 32 car ferry which was reduced to 28 - still 7 cars larger than the current one. Whatcom County discussed this problem of reduced capacity of a bigger boat and concluded the only way a 32 car ferry could carry more than a  24 car ferry in the same time was to have two lanes loading. Since they will be building new docks and ramps, it’s a possibility for them that we don’t have.

So, it’s not the size of the boat that limits the number of cars carried per hour but the time it takes to load and unload. It’s counter intuitive and somewhat ironic that a smaller ferry can carry more cars per hour than a bigger one. Whatcom’s ferry carries more cars per hour than the Guemes ferry even though it is a smaller boat (18 cars). It routinely does three runs an hour every day during peak periods with a slightly smaller boat over the same distance. The only difference seems to be time spent moving cars. 

A Survey on the capacity of a new ferry.