Clinton group going after new, larger ferry

Commuters board the Tokitae in Clinton on Thursday morning. The Clinton Community Council is planning to discuss an effort to lobby for a second 144-car ferry on the route and the addition of overhead loading during a meeting later this month.

On the heels of what some say is the worst summer in recent memory for long ferry lines, a Whidbey Island group has its sights on the state’s fourth and final budgeted 144-car ferry.

The Suquamish is scheduled to hit the water in 2018, but which run the vessel will serve remains undecided.

Leading members of the Clinton Community Council say it should join the ferry Tokitae on the Clinton-Mukilteo route. The group will decide later this month whether 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.

The council may also ask for overhead passenger loading, a long-hoped for feature at the Clinton Ferry Terminal.

“I think it’s time to turn up the heat on that too,” said Dave Hoogerwerf, a Clinton Community 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 one that is either struggling or cannot handle additional growth due to vessel or facility limitations.

A review of ridership statistics in August revealed second quarter growth was only 0.1 percent, the third lowest in the system. At the same time, state Ferries leaders were celebrating a 1.4 percent increase in ridership system wide, with some routes returning to levels not seen since 2000, the agency’s busiest year on record.

Despite sluggish growth on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo run, it holds the title as the busiest ferry route in the state, carrying 2.23 million cars during 2015.

That’s about 110,000 more vehicles than its closest competitor, the Edmonds-to-Kingston route.

“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. While waiting in their car in the holding lot at the Clinton ferry terminal last Thursday morning, Barbara and Jerry Kelly, of Clinton, said their medical needs have increased with age. Coupled with kids who want to visit, but struggle to get to the island, the Kellys 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.”

Other commuters said they aren’t ready for mainland living, but voiced strong support for another 144-car ferry on the route, 20 more cars than the Issaquah-class ferries, which have served on the run for decades.

The Tokitae began serving the run in June 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 state Ferries’ website.

While the larger ferries help relieve congestion, they take longer to load. Sometimes it’s forced to leave before its fully loaded — with cars still on the dock.

Meanwhile, 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.

Ian Sterling, a spokesman for Washington State Ferries, said the agency supports overhead passenger loading wherever possible. In fact, it’s included in long-range planning.

“Overhead loading is coming to Clinton, it’s just going to be a while,” Sterling said.

Twelve years, to be specific. The agency plans to begin construction in 2028, he said.

Sterling is optimistic about Clinton’s chances of securing the fourth 144-car ferry.

Ferry leaders are discussing this issue now, and the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route is at the top of the list of considered locations, he said.

“There’s a good possibility the boat ends up there, it’s definitely in the running.”

The Clinton Community Council meets 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 26 at the Clinton Community Hall off State Highway 525.