On the heels of what many are describing as the worst summer in recent memory for long ferry lines, members of the Clinton Community Council are setting their gaze on the state’s fourth and final budgeted 144-car ferry.
The Suquamish is scheduled to hit the water in 2018, but where the vessel will end up remains undecided. Leading members of the council believe it should come to the South End, and the body will decide later this month whether or not to formally lobby the state for the vessel.
“I don’t think there is too much to debate about,” said Jack Lynch, president of the council.
And while they’re at it, the council may also ask for overhead passenger loading, a long desired feature at the Clinton Ferry Terminal. The project is way overdue and is considered by many as an essential component to relieving route congestion.
“I think it’s time to turn up the heat on that too,” said Dave Hoogerwerf, a council member and chairman of Clinton Ferry Advisory Committee. “With the Mukilteo overhead loading coming, it’s kinda ridiculous that one side would have it and not the other.”
The Clinton-to-Mukilteo route is at capacity, a term ferry officials use to describe a route that is either struggling or cannot handle additional growth due to vessel or facility limitations. A Record examination of ridership statistics in August revealed second quarter growth had increased just 0.1 percent, the third lowest in the system. At the same time, agency leaders were celebrating a 1.4 increase in ridership system wide with some routes returning to levels not seen since 2000, the agency’s busiest year on record.
But despite sluggish growth on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo run, it holds the title as the busiest route in the state’s system, shuttling a whopping 2.23 million cars in 2015. That’s about 110,000 more vehicles than its closest competitor, the Edmonds-to-Kingston route. And demand continues to grow, with commuters and community leaders alike complaining about unusually long lines.
“This summer has been the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Curt Gordon, a Port of South Whidbey commissioner and longtime advocate for overhead passenger loading. “The line-ups can start midday — and during the week.”
For some, the headache has become too much. Speaking to The Record from their car in the holding lot at the Clinton Ferry Terminal on Thursday morning, Barbara and Jerry Kelly of Clinton said their medical needs have increased with age and, coupled with kids who want to visit but struggle to do so, they’ve decided enough is enough.
“What we’re doing is we’re moving off the island,” Barbara Kelly said.
“It’s an inconvenience living on the ferry’s schedule as opposed to our own,” she added.
Other commuters Thursday said they weren’t ready for mainland living just yet, but expressed strong support for a fourth 144-car ferry. They can hold 20 more cars than the Issaquah class boats, which have served the run for decades.
“Yes, absolutely,” said Jim Dyment, also a Clinton resident. “It [ferry line backups] used to be just in the summer. Now it’s all spring until now.”
Lynch agreed, saying waits that once were common on Friday, Sunday and Monday are now a regular occurrence the rest of the week.
“Now we’re into Tuesday, Wednesday and even Thursday,” Lynch said. “That is a fairly significant change.”
The Tokitae began serving the run in June of 2014, and it had a marked effect on ridership. By the end of 2015, user growth jumped 4.1 percent — the largest increase in 14 years, according to the agency’s website, which includes statistics that go back to 2002. The next largest increase was in 2003 of 3.7 percent.
While the larger boat has helped to relieve congestion, it’s introduced other unintended headaches. Larger ferries take longer to load, and the result is a vessel that lags behind and is sometimes forced to leave before its fully loaded — with cars still on the dock — to make way for the other arriving ferry.
Ferry officials have acknowledged the problem, saying it’s symptom of routes with mismatched ferries. It’s unclear just how often it occurs, however, as the agency tracks the number of cars on each sailing but not whether vehicles are left on the dock.
Others commuters said that along with another 144-car ferry they hoped the state would agree to construct overhead passenger loading at the Clinton ferry terminal.
“Definitely,” said Randy Rovang, a Clinton resident. “They’ll have overhead loading in Mukilteo, but not here. It’d be nice if they added that.”
Lynch and Gordon consider overhead passenger loading a necessity in Clinton, particularly because it’s going to be a feature of the new Mukilteo terminal. The run already has mismatched boats and they worry that speeding up loading on one side but not the other will only exacerbate the problem.
According to ridership statistics, the number of foot passengers has declined annually since the arrival of Tokitae, dropping 4.2 percent in 2015 and 3.4 percent in 2014. Previously, it seesawed between rises of 2.2 percent in 2013 and 4.6 percent in 2012, but drops of 3.9 percent in 2011 and 5.5 percent in 2010.
Ian Sterling, a spokesman for Washington State Ferries, said the agency supports overhead passenger loading wherever possible and agrees it’s needed at Clinton. In fact, it’s included in long-range planning and budget documents.
“Overhead loading is coming to Clinton, it’s just going to be a while,” Sterling said.
A long while — 12 years. The agency plans to begin construction in 2028, which should take about a year to complete, he said.
Gordon, who has long championed overhead loading and overnight parking in Mukilteo, said that’s way too long to wait. The problems on the route are immediate. He says a matched 144-car ferry would help but personally believes it’s less important than overhead loading.
“That and increased overnight Mukilteo could solve all our problems for years,” he said.
Gordon noted that Sen. Barbara Bailey successfully got $3 million for a kiss-and-ride near the terminal last year. If lawmakers can scratch up that much cash for such a project, then the $5 million he said was needed for overhead loading isn’t impossible.
The price tag, however, may be much more. When asked by The Record, Sterling said he checked with the agency’s terminal engineering director and the quote that came back was four times that.
“If we were to build the facility today, it’d cost $20 million,” he said.
Sterling is more optimistic about Clinton’s chances of securing the fourth 144-car ferry. Ferry leaders are discussing this issue now, he said, and the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route is at the top of the list of considered locations.
“There’s a good possibility the boat ends up there, it’s definitely in the running,” Sterling said.
“The decision has yet to be made but we’re aware of the issues up there,” he said.
He added that if the boat were home ported in Clinton, it would likely be a shared vessel. During slow times of year, it might be pulled off the route to service other communities in need, he said.
Hoogerwerf, who also serves as the co-chairman of the state’s Ferry Advisory Executive Council, believes getting a second 144-car ferry is a very real possibility, but that it will require a loud and unified South Whidbey voice. He hopes the community council’s leadership in this area will start a “movement” among other municipalities and transportation organizations. Ferry leaders don’t only make decisions based on performance improvements, he said — it’s about making one’s voice heard.
“What that boils down to is the squeaky wheel gets the attention,” Hoogerwerf said.
Similarly, he said that letters of support, such as the one to be discussed by the Clinton Community Council next week, only carry so much weight. Years of advocating for ferry interests has taught him that efforts are best directed at the state Legislature.
“I’ve become convinced the one you have to lobby is the Legislature because they’re the ones who hold the purse strings,” he said.
Whidbey’s state lawmakers — Sen. Barbara Bailey, Rep. Norma Smith and Rep. Dave Hayes — are all up for election this year.
Sterling said Ferries does work for the state. And if directed by the Legislature and provided the funding, overhead loading could be completed sooner. But, he argued that it’s not just about money and that lawmakers should weigh such a decision carefully. Ferries prioritizes projects, and “safety” and “preservation” needs come first.
“While overhead loading in Clinton would be great, how does that go up against a dock in the San Juans that would go in an earthquake?” he said. “What do you prioritize first?” he said.
For department decision makers, the answer is clear. Unless directed by the Legislature to do so, it’s unlikely they could be swayed to bump up overhead passenger loading at Clinton, Sterling said.
“Overhead loading is nice to have and we love it, but we have to get some other things done first,” he said.
The Clinton Community Council is set to meet at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26 in the Clinton Community Hall off Highway 525.