As the waters of South Puget Sound ripple below and the town of Steilacoom shrinks in the distance, Anderson Island resident Steve Francis takes in panoramic views of the Tacoma Narrows bridges, McNeil and Ketron islands, Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains.
The 20-minute ferry ride is the final leg of his daily commute returning from the Pierce County mainland. After the stress of the evening rush hour, he appreciates someone else taking the helm.
“You’re riding over and it’s like a whole weight is lifted,” said Francis, who works for a private contractor building sheds.
Anderson Island offers residents tranquility on its 7.75 square miles. It is the southernmost island in Puget Sound and is home to a network of trails and parks, paved roads perfect for bicycle rides, and two freshwater lakes.
About 1,000 people live there year-round. The population triples in the summer when people flock to vacation homes that make up most of the island’s housing.
But with the natural beauty and affordable property comes compromise.
“You become a slave to the ferry,” said daily commuter Christine Kaempfer, who has rented a home on the island for two years.
Like many on the island, Kaempfer and Francis commute daily and have to adjust work schedules to meet limited ferry departures. On most nights, the last boat leaves Steilacoom before 9 p.m.
For those who miss it, options are limited: Stay in a hotel, find a friend’s couch or sleep in the car.
“That’s part of living on an island,” said Kaempfer, who works at St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood. “If you live on an island, you have to be a homebody.”
But not everyone wants to be a homebody. A group of year-round island residents including commuters, real estate professionals, members of the Anderson Island Citizens Advisory Board and the general manager of the island’s homeowners association are petitioning Pierce County to expand service. Without it, they say the island will suffer.
County officials, however, say the solution is not as easy as adding an extra run because ferry fares do not cover the cost of running boats to the island. Already, 381,970 taxpayers in unincorporated Pierce County are subsidizing a transit service for 1,037 year-round islanders.
Meanwhile, some island lovers have left.
Limited ferry service forced newlyweds Kristie Flournoy, 22, and Cooley Pasley, 28, off the island this summer. The couple had moved to Anderson Island from Arkansas in 2013 after Flournoy was offered a job in Seattle.
Despite being one of the few young couples on the island, the pair wanted to make it work. But they couldn’t find jobs that fit the ferry schedule. They now rent in Lakewood, but haven’t given up on the idea of returning.
“Our five-year goal is to own land on the island and to build a home for ourselves on the island,” Flournoy said. “But that’s completely dependent on the ferry schedule expanding.”
The majority of Anderson Island’s full-time population is retirement age, or fast approaching it.
Forty-four percent are between the ages of 50 and 69; 18 percent are 70 to 85 years old and up, according to the 2010 census.
Only 63 people in their 30s live on the island year-round, according to the data.
The island is an affordable place to live compared with the rest of Pierce County, but limited ferry service keeps working professionals away, said island real estate agents Sarah Garmire and Cheryl Steffen.
And without a strong contingent of working families, property values will fall and those who live there year-round will be hurt financially, they said.
“The majority of our population is on fixed incomes,” said Garmire, a broker for Real Living Northwest Inc. “We need the working demographic, and we’re not getting it because of the ferry schedule.”
A 14-year island resident, Garmire watched the recession affect people’s ability to pay property taxes and their annual homeowner association dues to the Riviera Community Club. While property values are picking up in Pierce County, the island remains in the bottom 4 percent for improvement, Garmire said.
Of the island’s 3,906 tax parcels, the county owns 131 that went into foreclosure and were put up for auction but not purchased, according to Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Mike Lonergan.
The island saw its highest foreclosure rate in 2012 when 86 properties were delinquent on three years’ worth of tax payments. There are 47 foreclosed properties currently on the island.
Some property owners are so desperate to sell, they’ve dropped their list price to $2,000 for vacant land, Steffen said. The agents no longer list vacant parcels because land is not selling, she said.
The Riviera comprises 3,196 lots sized 0.2 acre each. The majority that are developed are vacation homes for retirement-age people, according to John Baird, general manager of the Riviera. The association needs age diversification among its property owners to succeed, he said.
“People you need to improve the vitality of the island aren’t coming on the island because of the ferry,” Baird said.
Ninety percent of potential renters and 50 percent to 60 percent of interested buyers who contact Garmire and Steffen cite ferry service as a reason for not coming to the island, Garmire said.
“Those of us that are frustrated by the schedule, we love (island life) and we want this, but we want what’s available on the other side, too,” island resident Ann Dasch said. “We don’t need the boat to run to midnight, but we do need something that’s reasonable.”
‘THE SWEET SPOT’
Many island commuters are making the current ferry schedule work. Some rent parking spaces in Steilacoom and keep one car on the island and another on the mainland. Walking on the ferry is cheaper, and with a 200-passenger capacity, commuters know they’ll make the boat instead of competing for one of 54 car spots.
Some people rent apartments on the mainland. Some who sporadically miss the boat rely on the generosity of friends.
The island’s middle and high school students who attend school on the mainland may have to spend the night with a friend or get a hotel room if an extracurricular activity ends after the last boat.
A survey of ferry riders earlier this year showed people wanted an earlier run in the morning and a later run at night. In response, the county bumped up its morning departure by 15 minutes and added a year-round 8:40 p.m. run on Thursdays. To break even, it discontinued its less-used 10 p.m. Sunday run.
“We try to serve the people the best we can,” said Deb Wallace, Pierce County airport and ferry administrator. “My sense of it is we’re not going to make everyone happy, so we try to find the sweet spot.”
Adrienne Morton works in the Tideflats area of Tacoma and has lived on the island for 20 years. She catches the first boat in the morning and hurries to catch the 5:10 p.m. boat home.
Morton said she doesn’t think adding service would be enough to persuade many people to move to the island. Instead, she said, it could lead to fare increases that might force more residents to move away.
Ideally, rider fares would cover the full cost to keep the ferries running, but in reality they only account for 47 percent, Wallace said. The rest is subsidized with money from the county road fund and grants, she said.
“Compared to what (island residents) pay, they get a huge return on the county road fund,” Wallace said.
For comparison, Whatcom County operates a 20-car, 100-passenger ferry to Lummi Island to serve 900 year-round residents. Ferry fares are set at a rate high enough to cover 55 percent of operating costs. Collections in 2013 came in at 58 percent, according to the Whatcom County public works website.
The state ferry system, which operates multiple runs from the Kitsap Peninsula, San Juan Islands and Canada, saw a 70 percent farebox recovery last year.
For Pierce County to add a ferry run without eliminating another during the day, fares would have to cover operational costs. But a 2013 report produced by the county showed the amount of money collected in fares would not support it.
“We know we could add service all over the place and it would be used, but it won’t be enough to pay for it,” Wallace said.
The county increased fares in 2008, in 2012 and most recently by 3 percent at the start of 2014. Another increase is planned for 2015 to help the system stay close to a 50 percent cost-recovery rate.
The county contracts with Hornblower Marine Services to run the ferry. If the ferry took a break during the afternoon in order to run later at night, the county would pay labor costs “without productivity,” Wallace said.
LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
Pierce County operates 16 hours of daily ferry service Monday through Thursday, with additional evening runs Friday and Saturday and a shorter schedule Sunday. The ferry makes more than 200 individual trips per week between Anderson and Ketron islands and the mainland.
The county’s ferry system predates the state’s and was never picked up by Washington State Ferries because it doesn’t connect to a state highway.
It’s been at least a decade since the county conducted an extensive review of its ferry system and created a planning document to shape operations. It will begin that process again next month with a waterborne transportation study that will look at service levels for both Anderson and Ketron islands.
The consultant-led survey will look at island demographics and forecast how the islands might grow in the next 20 years. Ten years ago, the study cost the county $250,000. That’s the same amount the Pierce County Council budgeted for it this year.
The study also will look at how to improve economics on Anderson Island through ferry accessibility. Information gleaned from the study will help set a ferry rate structure that makes sense, Pierce County Councilman Doug Richardson said.
If the results indicate people want changes in ferry service, county leaders will look at how to make that happen without adding costs, Richardson said.
For commuters such as Francis, who likes to unwind on the ferry after a day building sheds, he hopes the study results in an extra evening run.
“When you get there and you see the boat sail away without you, you’re thinking ‘Man, if I wouldn’t have taken that five minutes talking to the chatty customer,’ ” he said. “That extra five minutes would have made all the difference in the world.”