Ferry ridership growth slowed by capacity problems in Clinton

Long ferry lines in Clinton are becoming the norm

At a time when state ferry leaders are heralding “record” ridership increases throughout the system, statistics for the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route reveal second quarter growth is at its lowest level in five years.

The Clinton route’s 0.1 percent growth during the second quarter — April 1 through June 30 — was also the third lowest in the state’s 12-route system during 2016, according to agency numbers. The only runs that did worse were the Anacortes-to-Shaw and the Friday Harbor-to-Sidney B.C. runs, which saw declines of 7.4 percent 0.7 percent respectively.

Yet, the chorus from South End business leaders and commuters is one of unusually long ferry lines, even during the middle of the week.

“It’s been crazy, every day,” said Stephanie Cook, president of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce and owner of Cozy’s Roadhouse.

“Tuesdays it’s up to Dalton [Realty],” Jason Kalk, owner of Lincoln Computers, agreed. “It’s insane, at 10 o’clock in the morning.”

So why is ridership growth on South Whidbey at a stagnant 0.1 percent while lines and waits are unusually long? Here’s what we found out.

The bottle is full

According to Ray Deardorf, planning director for Washington State Ferries, the likeliest and simplest explanation for creeping growth is that the run is at capacity. There is only so much space two ferries can provide, he said, and the Clinton route has been at its limit for some time.

“The Mukilteo route has been at capacity pretty much for the last decade or so,” Deardorf said.

A Record review of second quarter ridership statistics over the past five years show a pattern of limited growth: 2012, 0.5 percent; 2013, 2.6 percent; 2014, 0.2 percent; 2015, 6.2 percent; and 2016, 0.1.

Annual growth was similar: 2012, 1.5 percent; 2013, 1.9 percent; 2014, 0.9 percent; and 2015, 4.1 percent.

Deardorf said the spikes in 2015’s numbers are likely due to the arrival of Tokitae, an Olympic-class ferry capable of carrying 144 cars, in June of 2014. The boats that have traditionally served the run, the Issaquah class, are capable of carrying 124 cars — 20 less than the Tokitae.

Deardorf said the weather can also have an effect on user levels. Lots of sunshine and people tend to stay closer to home, particularly on weekends, he said. It may be an explanation for a shift in user patterns, with residents choosing to travel more often during the week.

“Mondays looked like Sundays, with overloads all day long,” Deardorf said.

“We had three-hour waits a lot of the time,” he added.

On the comeback

So how does that stack up with the rest of the ferry system? Overall, ridership is on the rise, increasing 1.4 percent in the second quarter of 2016 as was recently announced by Washington State Ferries Chief Lynne Griffith.

“If you’ve been out on a ferry this summer, you’ve probably noticed we’ve been busy,” she said in a weekly newsletter. “In fact, we are currently in our busiest time of the year. From March-June of 2016, ridership increased systemwide and on some routes is returning to levels not seen since 2000, our busiest year on record.”

According to Ian Sterling, an agency spokesman, the ferry service peaked in ridership in 1999 and 2000, but numbers fell sharply with the passage of Initiative 695, which abolished the motor vehicle tax, a major source of ferry funding. The result was ticket prices went up 25 to 30 percent and ridership plummeted, Sterling said. Hindered by the Great Recession, system use has recovered slowly but picked up quickly in recent years.

“We’re still not carrying as many passengers as we did in 2000 but we’re on the come-back trail,” Sterling said.

“It’s just going through the roof,” he said.

Differing boats

Another problem on the route is that it’s serviced by two different kinds of ferries. The Tokitae was designed with larger capacity in mind specifically to relieve congestion and long holding lines, but some say it hasn’t helped.

According to Cook, the Tokitae seems like it’s always running behind schedule. People complain that they’ve seen the boat leave the dock not full despite the presence of a waiting line.

“It seems like they’re just not able to load that new boat,” she said.

“You get on the boat and it’s not full,” she added.

Sterling said state ferries couldn’t provide figures on how often that occurs; the agency does track how many boats are full but not whether people are left behind on the dock. But he doesn’t doubt it’s happening.

“I don’t know, but I wouldn’t dispute it,” Sterling said. “It’s usually a symptom of mismatched vessels or a schedule [problem].”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that were happening at Mukilteo,” he said. “It does take longer to off load and load a larger vessel.”

He added that relief is on the way with the new Mukilteo terminal. It will offer overhead passenger boarding, which should speed up the loading process. The terminal is set to open in 2019.

More 144-car ferries

According to Ron Nelson, director of the Island County Economic Development Council, commerce on South Whidbey is healthy and tourism on the rise. His office doesn’t track the actual number of visitors, but the lodging industry’s hotel/motel tax figures serve as a barometer and they’re up, he said.

The state sanctioned tax collects 2 percent from overnight establishments, and totals for the past three years are: $271,597 in 2013, $293,825 in 2014, and $324,653 in 2015.

Nelson said there are other indicators of a bustling economy as well, such as the need to book weddings a year in advance and reports from visitors that they can’t always get a seat at restaurants.

Cook agreed that business is good, saying she’s had an usually busy year.

“It’s been one of the best summers ever,” she said.

Nelson doesn’t believe the island has reached a saturation point, however, and said the island could use additional ferry service. How or when that would be achieved, he couldn’t say.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see a third ferry on that run,” Nelson said. “If they did put a third ferry, I think we could easily handle the people coming,” he said.

There are no current plans to add a third ferry to the route, and Sterling said it’s unlikely the run will get a second 144-car ferry anytime soon. The Samish was promised to and is currently serving the San Juans, and the third Olympic-class boat, the Chimacum, will replace an older vessel on the Seattle-to-Bremerton route in early 2017.

A fourth ferry, the Suquamish, has not yet been assigned.

Sterling said the agency’s fleet is aging and that requests for replacements will likely continue to go before the state Legislature.

In the meantime, he’s optimistic that the new Mukilteo terminal will help address some of the issues on the run. Ferries isn’t overly concerned by the slow growth, he said, but the long lines and loading issues are something the agency hopes the new facility will address.

“There are some issues on Mukilteo/Clinton, no doubt,” he said.

Clinton ferry growth, by the numbers

ANNUAL, 2012-2015

2012: 1.5 percent

2013: 1.9 percent

2014: 0.9 percent

2015: 4.1 percent

QUARTERLY, April 1 through June 30

2012: 0.5 percent

2013: 2.6 percent

2014: 0.2 percent

2015: 6.2 percent

2016: 0.1 percent