EDITORIAL | It’s time for Whidbey to sing for ferries

South Whidbey is like any small community in that it always finds something to argue about, be it the fate of Langley’s bunny legions, horse poop on public trails or who should be the next president. But, if there’s one thing no one seems to debate, it’s long ferry lines.

They’re awful. And they appear to be getting worse.

Fortunately, the Clinton Community Council may offer some hope of relief next week when it discusses whether or not to officially lobby the state to homeport the fourth 144-car ferry on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route. Given that long ferry lines are nothing new and that the Suquamish is scheduled to go into service in 2018 but has yet to be assigned, this is an appropriate and extremely timely discussion, and we applaud the council for showing some desperately needed leadership on a matter that should have been addressed by all of Whidbey’s governments long ago.

According to Washington State Ferries leaders, the Clinton route is at capacity, a term that means the boats and terminals simply can’t handle more traffic, especially at specific high-traffic times. That’s long been Friday and Sunday afternoons, when weekend warriors from the mainland would rush to return to their island retreats. Those lines, however, have spilled into the work week. Now people wait on Monday. And Tuesday. And Wednesday, and so on.

On this, daily commuters, business owners and community leaders all agree. But even if they didn’t, the numbers tell the tale. In 2015, the Clinton-to-Mukilteo was the busiest route in the state system, transporting 2.23 million cars. Our closest competitor, the Edmonds-to-Kingston route, trailed by more than 110,000 cars. The arrival of the Tokitae in 2014, a ferry that can carry 20 more cars per load than the Issaquah-class boats, had an immediate and visible effect with overall user growth climbing 4.1 percent by the end of 2015. That’s the largest increase in 14 years, according to the agency’s website.

Yet, lines are worse than ever. Part of the problem is that larger boats take longer to load. That throws off the schedule, and ferry officials and riders alike say it’s not uncommon for the larger vessel to be forced to leave before it’s fully loaded to make way for the other arriving ferry.

Having two boats of the same size would not only help alleviate this problem, but it seems rather obvious to us that it’s appropriate for a run that shuttles the most cars in the system and is suffering from long lines. The expedition of overhead passenger loading in Clinton should also be argued for. It’s on the books for 2028, and ferry officials say it’s that far out because other “safety” related projects take priority.

Rubbish.

Since when has overhead passenger loading not been a safety issue? Cars and pedestrians don’t mix. That’s transportation 101. Ferries’ priorities on this matter should be challenged. Funding hurdles, however, hold more water. A ferry official said last week that it could cost $20 million to build overhead loading in Clinton. That’s not pocket change, but in our eyes it’s only more reason to start sooner rather than later. If it’s this expensive now, just imagine what it will cost in a dozen years.

Yes, it will be pricey. And a tough sell. Convincing the state to address this now will take a strong and unified voice. As Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, told The Record last year on this very issue, it will take a chorus.

“It’s a matter of everyone coming together and singing from the same sheet of music,” said Bailey, adding that support from lawmakers would likely follow.

The Clinton Community Council is absolutely right to tackle these issues, and every other municipal government and transportation organization on Whidbey should follow suit. The time has come for everyone to stand up and sing together.