Soundoff: Ferry delays are a dire emergency for Whidbey residents

By Island County Commissioner Melanie Bacon

Whidbey Island is the largest island in the Stat of Washington and the fourth-largest island in the contiguous United States. Seventy thousand people live on Whidbey Island. There are only three public ways to get on and off Whidbey: via the two-lane Deception Pass bridge on the north end, the Coupeville ferry on the central-west side, and the Clinton ferry on the southeast side of the island.

Early this summer, due to aging boats and staffing issues, the Washington State Department of Transportation decided to cut the two-boat Coupeville-Port Townsend ferry service down to one boat. We on the Island County Council of Governments — the mayors, the county commissioners, the port district commissioners — yelled about that, pretty loudly, to no avail. We are now down to 10 routes per day on the Salish traveling between Coupeville and Port Townsend; the Salish holds just 64 vehicles, or a maximum capacity of just 640 vehicles per day, assuming the tides are in our favor which they often aren’t. We were assured it was just a temporary measure — but I notice that WSDOT does not even allow access to see the normal two-boat schedule on their website anymore, which I consider very ominous.

As of Oct. 16, the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry service has also been taken down to just one boat. This is a very busy ferry route, carrying 4 million riders per year. It normally runs every half-hour, with 38 trips each way during the weekdays, and there are almost always lines backed up on both sides of the route. Now it will be running once per hour, just 20 routes per day, and the Suquamish, the boat assigned to this new “alternate” route, carries just 144 vehicles. That means a maximum capacity of almost 5,500 vehicles per day is now down to a maximum capacity of just shy of 2,900.

Check out the ferry cam at The camera I find most interesting is the one looking west from downtown Clinton. Those are cars that most likely will not make the next ferry. WSDOT estimates a 90-minute wait for all drivers departing the Clinton terminal.

What will this do to the people who live and work on Whidbey? This is more than just annoyance at wanting to shop at Costco but having to wait 90 minutes to get on the boat in Clinton plus another 90 minutes to come home from the Mukilteo terminal. Adding a couple of hours extra per day just to get on and off the ferry means people who live on Whidbey and work on the other side (and vice versa) are going to see a huge impact on their ability to get to work on time and the quality of their home life. This is going to affect everything from mail and package delivery on Whidbey to filling our grocery, retail and hardware store shelves to people getting to their medical appointments.

People on Whidbey rely on folks from off-island to perform essential services here — and workers who already disliked the old ferry wait are going to refuse to come here to work. It’s good that we’re getting into the slow tourist season anyway, because tourists won’t come now. This is going to impact Whidbey’s already stressed medical services — I personally had to go to Providence Hospital four times in the last 12 months, but would have thought twice about going off island if the wait had been so long — can WhidbeyHealth manage the extra caseload when they’re already so short-staffed? Emergency vehicles will have to wait an extra half-hour because the boat schedule has been cut in half — what will be the otherwise-preventable cost in safety and human life?

Whidbey’s new ferry schedule is not considered an emergency to the governor or to WSDOT. But for the 70,000 people who live here, it is definitely an emergency. I call on our Washington State elected officials — Sen. Ron Muzzall, Rep. Dave Paul and Rep. Greg Gilday, along with the elected officials for the Port Townsend and Mukilteo ferry areas — to put pressure on WSDOT to give us back our boats.

And in Island County, since I can’t do anything about the ferry, there are a few other projects I am going to be pushing for movement on next year: (1) building a new deep water boat launch in South Whidbey; (2) ensuring the ongoing health of the Eisenberg Airport outside of Oak Harbor; and (3) solving our road access issues to the Whidbey Airpark on South Whidbey. I am genuinely concerned about our ability to get on and off Whidbey Island in an emergency. It’s clear that we can’t rely on the folks at the State to care about this for us.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon is an Island County commissioner for District 1.