Ferries pass on a crossing between Mukilteo and Whidbey Island. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Ferries pass on a crossing between Mukilteo and Whidbey Island. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)

Island County officials decry subpar ferry service

The Mukilteo-Clinton route has mostly been operating with one boat instead of two since last fall.

Island County commissioners, city leaders and port commissioners are planning to send a letter to state and federal legislators regarding Whidbey Island’s current subpar ferry service.

Cuts made to service during the COVID-19 pandemic have been keenly felt by both routes that serve Whidbey. The Mukilteo-Clinton route, one of the busiest in the entire ferry system, has mostly been operating with one boat instead of two since the plan for reduced service was announced last fall. The Port Townsend-Coupeville route, considered to be one of the lowest priorities within the system, hasn’t had a second boat running for over a year.

The ferry system has blamed its staffing shortage on a number of factors, including a paucity of maritime workers, a wave of retirements and increases in cases of COVID-19 for current employees.

On Wednesday, the Island County Council of Governments met to discuss sending a letter to local representatives about the ongoing turmoil.

The council is made up of county commissioners, mayors of the three municipalities and representatives from the port districts.

Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes led the charge in writing the letter. The preliminary draft of the letter urges “continued vigilance” on prioritizing Whidbey’s two ferry routes. It recommends accepting “lateral” hires from other industries and better scheduling for existing employees, including offering incentives to stay.

Suggestions for operational changes listed in a draft version include “an overload schedule that allows boats to leave when they are full and not having to wait for a scheduled departure time,” “temporarily contracting with private boats for walk on service for commuters and medical appointments” and “reservations that hold a percentage of spaces for residents who need dependable service for work and medical needs on the Clinton route and Navy and freight needs on the Coupeville route.”

Mike Welding, public affairs officer for Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, said in an email to the Whidbey News-Times that there have been no reports of significant official issues regarding ferry service at the base.

“Sailors are undoubtedly including ferry service availability into their travel planning,” he wrote.

The draft of Hughes’ letter also criticized the slow-moving construction of new ferries, which will not add a new boat to the fleet until 2025.

“Consider contracting with several ferry builders to have construction of two or three ferries happening simultaneously and sticking with some tried and true designs,” the letter read. “Consider spending some of our state’s considerable revenue surplus on ferry construction.”

The county commissioners voiced their support for the letter during the Council of Governments meeting.

“I’m just horrified by the way we, on Whidbey Island, are being treated with regard to a lack of seeing how important these ferries are to our citizens and to public safety,” Commissioner Melanie Bacon said.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.

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