Ridership proves to be higher than anticipated in trial period of commuter service
Local officials who helped launch a trial passenger ferry from Bellingham to Friday Harbor this winter believe there’s enough demand in both communities to keep the service afloat year-round in the future.
Since its first run on Nov. 28, the passenger ferry, operated by Fairhaven’s Victoria San Juan Cruises through a $150,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration, has served around 3,000 passengers.
“I think this shows there’s an interest, a real possibility exists to continue the service,” said Jim Miller, director of the Whatcom Council of Governments (COG), which for several years has pondered the feasibility of a passenger ferry from either Bellingham or Blaine to destinations like the San Juan Islands, Point Roberts, Victoria, Vancouver and White Rock.
Since officials knew there would likely be high demand for a passenger ferry from Bellingham to Friday Harbor during summer months — because of tourism opportunities — Miller said the COG decided on having a trial run in the winter to gauge how many commuters would use the service.
Melissa Miller, a project coordinator with the COG, said the service, which departs twice a day, Monday through Friday, from both destinations, via the 149-passenger Victoria Star 2, had been averaging about 50 passengers a day, though late February.
Despite a small advertising budget, ridership, she said, has steadily increased each week since the ferry’s first voyage and has yet to plateau.
The ferry, which travels from dock to dock in about 90 minutes, costs $10 each way. The last day of the experimental service is March 31.
Because the COG does not have the legal authority to operate a ferry service, the Port of Bellingham has been administering the project. Victoria San Juan Cruises was selected to operate the ferry because its owner, Drew Schmidt, was already licensed by the state to provide runs directly to Friday Harbor and his Victoria Star 2, which is used primarily during summer months, was available to provide the service.
Schmidt, who already offers whale-watching tours and service to the San Juans and Victoria, will resume his regular runs this spring.
Port Commissioner Doug Smith, who’s long championed a passenger ferry operating out of Whatcom County, said Bellingham and Friday Harbor have a history of being connected by boat, dating to the first half of the 1900s, when the Osage sailed between the two locations, carrying mail, foodstuffs and passengers.
Freight lines, too, he said, have connected the two seaside communities in the past, and many families in Whatcom County have ties to the San Juans — and vice versa.
“The whole idea of trying to resurrect boat transportation between Bellingham and Friday Harbor was, in my mind, a way to kind of resurrect family communication and business between Whatcom County and the citizens of Friday Harbor and the San Juan Islands.”
Indeed, said the COG’s Melissa Miller, “a large number” of passengers thus far have been people traveling on family-related trips.
While no official statistics are available yet, Miller said many travelers from Friday Harbor have included island residents who want to utilize Bellingham’s abundant medical, retail, recreational and cultural services, and students who attend Whatcom County’s four colleges.
Schmidt said he’s noticed that many of the passengers leaving from Bellingham are people who want to spend the day exploring Friday Harbor’s quaint shops and restaurants. Also, he’s noticed a significant number of construction workers and tradespeople heading to jobs on the island.
Both John Cooper, president of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, and Ken Oplinger, president of Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce, said continuation of the ferry service would likely strengthen both business and tourism in Whatcom County.
For San Juan Island residents, Oplinger said, taking a ferry to Bellingham, as opposed to riding the existing state ferry from Friday Harbor to Anacortes, may be more attractive because of the greater variety of services, entertainment opportunities and retail outlets here, including Bellis Fair mall and big-box stores.
Cooper added that passenger-ferry service would also strengthen Bellingham’s reputation as a launching point into the San Juan Islands.
Also, he said, many travelers from outside the region coming to take the ferry would likely spend the night in Bellingham before embarking on early morning runs to the islands.
“Anything that puts heads in beds is good by me,” he said. “Overnight visitors here spend about three times as much as day visitors.”
San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Debbie Pigman said she’s also supportive of the idea of a year-round ferry.
“From our point of view,” she said, “people here could get to the Bellingham area more quickly than they can now, and it would bring people here to do some specialty shopping or take a day trip.”
COG’s Jim Miller said another benefit of the service is that it would help get more cars off Interstate 5 and thus contribute to reducing congestion and pollution.
To get suggestions on changes to the service, and a better feel for who would utilize a year-round passenger ferry, COG’s Melissa Miller said the organization has been distributing surveys to passengers each day and has mailed a questionnaire to residents of San Juan Island. The survey is also online at www.wcog.org.
Through February, she said, COG had received about 700 completed surveys, with about 75 percent of the responses being positive.
Common suggestions, she said, have included:
• Offering weekend services.
• Providing later return trips from Bellingham, so Islanders can spend more time on the mainland.
• Having designated parking near the Fairhaven and Friday Harbor terminals.
A final report on the service should be completed by April or May.
If a year-round passenger ferry is deemed viable by officials and others, and federal funding could be secured, in the best-case scenario, Miller said, the service could be operating again within a year.
However, as the Bellingham-Friday Harbor passenger ferry was not on many state lawmakers’ radars this year and, historically, user fees have covered the lion’s share of ferry operations, local officials believe the state would probably not provide much funding for the service.
“I think it’s safe to say the state will not be a source of funding immediately for this,” said Miller.
If results from the trial operation reveal high demand for continued year-round service, Port Commissioner Smith said he’d like to see a private operator offer the service, deriving funding from passenger fees.
Schmidt, who said he’d support the full-time service, and be interested in offering one, believes a run would probably not be self-sustaining on passenger fees alone and would favor a public-private partnership for such an operation.
Judging from what he’s seen from this winter’s experimental service, Smith believes a full-time passenger ferry would be warmly received.
“I think it’s really enhanced access to Friday Harbor businesses to people from Whatcom County and it’s helped San Juan Island’s citizens access things over here,” he said. “From both an economical and social standpoint, I think it’s been a viable service. Given that we started this in the middle of winter, with little advertising, I think it’s been a roaring success.”
Winter foot ferry
Schedule: Departs Bellingham Cruise Terminal at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m.; Departs Friday Harbor at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Cost: $10 each way
Crossing time: 90 minutes
Ferry amenities: Snack bar, bicycle storage, access to rental-car
Last day of trial service: March 31