San Juan ferries face crunch

"Ferry backups are getting more and more severe on runs from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands this summer.One customer has already sent me four e-mails, because he fears a problem, admits Washington State Ferries Service Planning Manager Dave Remagen.Another, Orcas Island ice cream salesman Ed Sutton, says the problem of ferry overloads started earlier than ever this tourist season. Sutton finds it incredible that there are only two Anacortes-Orcas and Anacortes-Friday Harbor sailings between noon and late evening during the summer months, while there are four in the afternoon and early evening during the far slower fall, winter and spring. Sutton won't be hurt because, as a businessman, he qualifies for commercial priority loading. But he is betting that the late afternoon rush of tourists and local people wanting to get to the islands will all but assure a daily disaster.Local ferry agents report that the trouble has already begun; that the number of overloads during the first two weeks of the summer ferry schedule have exceeded those from last year, and that they started well before the July 4 weekend crush.We're putting more cars in our upper lot, said Friday Harbor agent Mike Akin, noting that things get especially crowded in the afternoon, when there is no ferry to Anacortes between 1 and 5 p.m. Agents at the Orcas and Lopez terminals say the problem is especially bad for trucks, which are being overloaded every afternoon. The reason? The 130-car ferry Kitsap on the early afternoon sailing from Orcas and Lopez, agree Orcas ferry agent Mary Russell and Lopez terminal employee Shelly Clark agree. Last summer a 160-car ferry made the early afternoon sailing to Anacortes.After the Kitsap reaches Anacortes, it heads off to Friday Harbor at 3:10 p.m., meaning San Juan Island also must feel the effects of reduced car capacity.Adding to the problem is the fact that the 160-ferry Elwha is making two trips daily this summer to Sidney, B.C., one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Of course it bugs me, says Russell of the ferry which was sailing nearly two-thirds empty to British Columbia on many of the trips prior to July 4 weekend, while cars were being overloaded both in Anacortes and the islands. Last summer the 100-car ferry Evergreen State went to Sidney, leaving the Elwha to serve the islands all day. The Evergreen State was taken out of service because of the funding cuts made in the aftermath of Initiative-695.Akin says the situation would be greatly alleviated if the Elwha was available all day for domestic service. But he notes that islanders have only themselves to blame for the state of affairs. Over two years ago, when Washington State Ferries proposed eliminating service to Sidney, local people were virtually unanimous in opposing the move. They had a fit, Akin said. Add to that all the opposition from Anacortes, and Washington State Ferries not only backed down, it increased the amount of service at a time when everybody else in the system got cut back.Moreover, it appears that for the foreseeable future the Elwha will continue going to Sidney twice daily during the summers, Remagen says. But Ferries Advisory Committee chair Bob Distler says if the present trend continues, he'll fight to get the Elwha back. I'll be watching the numbers closely, Distler says.But even if the San Juans can reclaim the Elwha, the overloads are unlikely to go away. Clark may have gotten to the core of the matter. We have more and more people coming here every year, she said."

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