People watch as a ferry boat leave the Mukilteo ferry terminal on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020 in Mukilteo. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

People watch as a ferry boat leave the Mukilteo ferry terminal on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020 in Mukilteo. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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Mukilteo-Clinton route is hot spot as ridership hits low point

Overall ridership on state ferry system dropped to a near 50-year low in 2020, but it’s picking up.

MUKILTEO — The news that ferry ridership hit its lowest level in nearly 50 years might come as a surprise to those waiting in the packed holding lanes on the Mukilteo-Clinton route.

That route was hit by the pandemic plunge of 2020, but not as much as others in the state ferry system.

Even with a 26% drop in total riders on the boats that crisscross the water twice an hour, the link connecting Snohomish County to Whidbey Island carried the most customers statewide. On the Edmonds-Kingston route, total ridership fell 29%.

Ian Sterling, Washington State Ferries spokesman, said total state ridership in 2020 was about 14 million, about 10 million less than in 2019. Stay-at-home orders, remote work and decreased tourism because of COVID-19 are the main reasons for the system’s lowest yearly count since 1975.

“Compared to other transit systems, we’re the lucky ones,” Sterling said. “Rail, bus and even airlines have seen a dropoff in customers.”

Ferry rides picked up after plummeting.

In recent months, ridership has returned to about 60% of pre-pandemic levels. Total vehicles are near 70% of 2019 numbers, while walk-ons are around 20% of last year.

“We have recovered significantly,” Sterling said. “We expect to continue to rebound.”

Ferries offer a relatively safe means of travel.

“You can stay in your car the whole time. It’s basically a touchless way across the water,” he said.

It isn’t the ferry ride of the summer of 2019.

No more standing on the very top deck for a hair-blowing breeze or scarfing down popcorn while working a jigsaw puzzle. The galley is closed, tables cleared off and some areas are roped off.

Loudspeakers urge riders not to leave their cars. Restrooms are open, just in case.

The new Mukilteo ferry terminal opened Dec. 29. The depot, Washington’s first new ferry terminal in 40 years, connects with a waterfront promenade. Nearly 250 vehicles fit in the holding lanes. The passenger boarding ramp is expected to be ready in February.

For the first time since it began operations in 1951, the ferries carried more vehicles (7.6 million) than passengers (6.4 million) last year.

“The Seattle-Bainbridge Island route took a huge hit from the walk-on customers commuting to work in Seattle. They’re all working from home,” Sterling said.

On that route, walk-ons were down 74%.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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