SAN JUAN COUNTY, WA. November 2, 2023 – The San Juan County and Town of Friday Harbor Councils are publishing an open letter sent to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee and Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar. The letter highlights the impacts of Washington State Ferry service disruptions county-wide and is co-signed by local boards and business representatives from across the islands. This letter is part of ongoing efforts to improve ferry service to the San Juan Islands.
Re: Impacts of Washington State Ferry service disruptions in San Juan County, WA
Dear Governor Inslee and Secretary Millar,
On behalf of the residents, business owners, and essential service providers in San Juan County and Town of Friday Harbor, many of which are co-signers to this letter, we are compelled to collectively bring to your attention the serious consequences of the significant disruptions to Washington State Ferries (WSF) service on the Anacortes / San Juan Islands route. The negative impacts of unpredictable and unreliable sailings and frequent cancellations caused by vessel and crew shortages, vessel maintenance and failures, and other persistent complications across the ferry system are compounding to critical levels. The evidence for this is mounting.
The County and Town of Friday Harbor Councils are committed to continue working with the Governor's Office, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and WSF, and our legislative representatives on localized solutions.
As you are aware, San Juan County does not have a bridge or alternate driving route to the mainland or between islands. WSF sailings are heavily traveled by residents and tourists as the main transportation link to and from other islands and the mainland. Residents rely on the ferries for every aspect of life including: access to work, school, essential services, medical care, commerce, the courts, the county clerk, and other basic necessities of life. Tourists rely on the ferries to get to the destinations they booked and paid for, and to reliably return home.
Ferry service disruptions to the San Juan Islands have gone far beyond inconvenience for some time now. We are beginning to quantify the impact on our local economy and the well-being of residents. There is growing concern, based on a preliminary analysis of San Juan County's sales and lodging tax data, that we are experiencing high losses of this critical revenue source due to ferry service disruptions. The negative perception and experience of riders of ferries across the system is well publicized by media outlets creating a disincentive for people to travel to these islands for tourism and move here for employment.
A County Community Health Assessment is currently generating data that confirms what we have heard repeatedly from the public — access to critical medical services for our residents is declining to life-threatening levels due to the unreliability of ferries when travelling for medical care on the mainland or to the only critical care unit in our County on San Juan Island. Residents are routinely forced to spend additional dollars, if they can afford to, to spend a night on the mainland before or after medical appointments and procedures.
Further data gathering and statistical analysis of the costs to this County and the Town of Friday Harbor of ferry service disruption is urgently needed. In the meantime, as the County further analyzes the lodging and sales tax figures and projected losses of revenue and compiles the community health assessment findings that information will be shared with your offices.
We understand that many of these issues are not unique to our route. Local mayors, county commissioners, state legislators, trade unions, and business and community leaders across the system are sending the same messages through the media and to legislators and begging for solutions.
However, given our geography, demographics and ridership, our reliance on the ferry system is unique which is why our County continues to work closely with our colleagues at WSF through our Ferry Advisory Committee to find localized solutions to mitigate and minimize the negative impacts of ferry disruptions on our route. We value the relationship we have with WSF and the practical operational efforts they are making to address issues and challenges experienced by residents on a regular basis.
We also appreciate that significant investments of State funds have been approved in recent legislative budgets for capital costs and operational improvements, including as much as $21 million since 2022 towards crewing and workforce funding. Governor, on your recent visit to Lopez Island, we appreciated your willingness to discuss the challenges outlined in this letter and openness to listen to localized solutions we are working to alleviate the hardships we are living with.
We would like to share a few of the short-term solutions that are being discussed in our County to address ferry service disruptions that would truly make a difference. We would be grateful for the opportunity to discuss them in detail with your staff:
- Increase the accessibility for priority medical loading within the islands and to/from Anacortes.
- Support the County in establishing a passenger-only ferry service between the islands.
- Establish a reliable emergency schedule.
- Provide financial support to the County and Town of Friday Harbor for data collection and analysis of the impacts to businesses and residents of ferry service disruptions on the Anacortes /San Juan Islands route.
- Incentivize residency for WSF crews within a reasonable distance from the Anacortes/San Juan Islands terminals.
- Establish a secondary on-call crew exclusive to the Anacortes/San Juan Island routes.
- Develop an Emergency Action Plan with local stakeholders (Town of Friday Harbor, San Juan County, other local agencies) to mitigate impacts of stranded commuters when vessels are cancelled unexpectedly.
- Partner with the Northwest Workforce Council, the County's Economic Development Council, local trades programs and our school districts to promote interest in employment with WSF as a career.
- Examine the feasibility of increased wages for employees of WSF to be competitive given current workforce shortage conditions.
The Anacortes/San Juan Islands route is not expected to be fully restored by WSF until the end of this decade at the earliest. As new hybrid electric boats gradually materialize over the next 5 to 7 years, they will replace boats that are upwards of 60 to 70 years old that will need to be decommissioned. The 21-vessel fleet across the system will not increase. This is not sustainable for our County.
We request the opportunity to meet with members of your respective executive teams to explore the viability of some of our suggested solutions and many more localized ones that we are discussing with WSF on a monthly basis.
Thank you for your consideration of our concerns.
Cindy Wolf, County Council Member, Chair
Jane Fuller, County Council Member, Vice-Chair
Christine Minney, County Council Member
Raymont C. Jackson, Mayor, Town of Friday Harbor
Steve Hushebeck, Town Council
Noel Monin, Town Council
Anna Maria de Freitas, Town Council
Mason Turnage, Town Council
Barbara Starr, Town Council
San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee
Boards of the San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Hospital / Health Care Districts
Boards of the San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Fire Districts and EMS
Boards of the San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Family Resource Centers
Boards of the San Juan, Orcas and Lopez Chambers of Commerce
Boards of the San Juan, Orcas, Shaw, and Lopez Island School Districts
Board of the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
Port of Friday Harbor, East Sound, and Lopez Island
Patty Rubstello, Assistant Secretary WSDOT/Ferries Division
Senator Liz Lovelett, District 40
Representative Debra Lekanoff, District 40
Representative Alex Ramel, District 40
Representative Jake Fey, Chair of House Transportation Committee
Senator Steve Hobbs, Chair of Senate Transportation Committee
Senator Maria Cantwell, United States Senate
Senator Patty Murray, United States Senate
Representative Rick Larsen, United States House of Representatives