Editorial: Why no ferry meeting here?

The Washington State Transportation Commission has decided to bypass Whidbey Island in the process of collecting in-person comments on the latest ferry increase proposal. While it’s rather insulting to islanders, the probable reasoning is understandable: Ferry officials don’t want to wait in the endless afternoon Mukilteo ferry line to get her from Seattle.

On the table elsewhere next week will be a 2.5 percent across-the-board ferry fare increase. In addition, summer tourists and other less frequent ferry users will be gouged with another 10 percent on top of the 20 percent “surcharge” they already pay.

Whidbey Island business leaders should be aghast at the proposal, coming at a time when tourist spending is already down. Making it even more costly to come to the island is bad for business, and hitting tourists for extra fare money risks turning them off entirely. Empty storefronts are plentiful enough without the ferry system making it harder on our small businesses.

Anyone who has used the ferry this summer knows the lines have been long, and for more hours of the day. But overall, ridership is not increasing. According to the Puget Sound Regional Council, ferry ridership declined an average of 3.4 percent from June 2007 to June 2008, which was the eighth time in the last nine years ridership has fallen. Summer days are busy, but fewer people are using the ferries the rest of the year.

Rising costs for commuters is one problem, but so is poor service. Whidbey Island has grown enormously the last quarter century, but service on the main ferry commuter route from Clinton to Mukilteo is the same. Ever since the Issaquah Class ferries entered service around 1980, the same two boats have gone back and forth, while the lines have grown on both sides.

Whatever happened to the plan for three boats serving Clinton / Mukilteo? It seemed like a no-brainer 20 years ago, but plans to enlarge the Mukilteo dock to accommodate a third ferry never materialized. A vastly expensive plan to tie in a new ferry dock with a revitalized Mukilteo waterfront proved too costly, and there was no plan B to fall back on. Now it’s anyone’s guess when a third ferry will serve Whidbey.

Ferry users are continually paying more for worse service, which may be one of the reasons the population of school-aged children is declining on ferry-dependent parts of the island. Who wants to pay all that money, work all day, and wait for an hour or more to catch the boat home?

Better ferry service at an affordable price is what Whidbey Island needs. Nothing in the new fare proposal gets us nearer to this goal. Unfortunately, you can’t express your concerns at a Whidbey Island meeting.

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