For two years, Anderson Island residents have asked the Pierce County Council to change the county-run ferry service to better meet their needs.
They gave accounts of people moving off the island because ferry runs didn’t line up with commuter schedules. They warned that if something wasn’t done, the county could face significant financial hardship because there wouldn’t be enough people using the ferry to justify its operation.
Their persistence, and patience, have paid off.
County Council Chairman Doug Richardson has requested adding a 4:45 a.m. ferry run and has directed county staff members work with island residents to come up with a plan to run a later boat Monday through Wednesday to meet the needs of commuters.
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He wants the changes in place by June.
“They recognized that if things continued the way they were going, there was going to be a downward spiral,” said Joe Howells, chairman of the Anderson Island Citizen Advisory Board.
To help pay for ferry operations, the county needs people to ride the boats.
The impact could be devastating, officials say, if the island’s population continues to fall, or if more retired people who don’t use the ferry regularly move to the island, according to a consultant hired to review the county’s ferry system.
They recognized that if things continued the way they were going there was going to be a downward spiral.”
Joe Howells, chairman of the Anderson Island Citizen Advisory Board
Despite islanders’ requests for more ferry service, the County Council held off making changes until the consultant’s study was done. The report was recently completed.
It looked at demographics on Anderson and Ketron islands, as well as where people travel for work, and offered recommendations for how to maintain a sustainable ferry operation.
Anderson Island is the southernmost island in Puget Sound. A network of trails and parks, paved roads good for bicycle rides and two freshwater lakes make up the 7.75-square-mile island.
About 1,000 people live there year-round.
Most of the transportation study’s analysis backed up what island residents have been saying for years, Howells said.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he said.
The study recommended adding a morning run and evening run, but acknowledged the county would need to subsidize part of the cost.
Pierce County has proposed adding a 4:45 a.m. run to its Anderson Island ferry service and extending the time between runs to offer a later boat Monday through Wednesday. It will also offer two boats during the busiest summer months to reduce the number of cars left behind.
It also proposed adding a second boat to the busiest summer months when the island’s population triples as people flock to vacation homes. The study assumed the increased ridership would pay for the boat.
Deb Wallace, the county’s airport and ferry administrator, ran through the study’s highlights with four council members April 19 at a meeting dealing with infrastructure and economic development issues.
She outlined ways the county could improve ferry service now while meeting long-term goals to grow ridership.
“We agree the recommendations are sound and smart business,” she said at the meeting. “It’s a question of how do we pay for it? And then how and when do we implement some of those recommendations?”
Trying to balance these questions, Wallace offered a proposal that wasn’t met favorably by islanders.
It didn’t include adding the 4:45 a.m. run, but suggested extending the time between ferry runs during the day to offer a later boat in the evenings Monday through Wednesday.
Extending the time between ferry departures would have multiple benefits, Wallace said.
It would allow later service without the cost of adding a run and it would reduce the number of times the boats are delayed, she said. Full boats, train crossings in Steilacoom and other factors contribute to boats not leaving on time.
Ultimately, Richardson made the proposal to add the 4:45 a.m. run. To gauge its success, he said he would like to see it operate for at least two years.
There’s no magic amount of money that is going to materialize between now and next June. We’re just going to have to identify those funds.
Doug Richardson, R-Lakewood, Pierce County Council Chairman
The study suggested making the changes next year, but the Lakewood Republican didn’t want to wait that long.
“There’s no magic amount of money that is going to materialize between now and next June,” Richardson said. “We’re just going to have to identify those funds.”
He proposed moving money within the Public Works budget to cover the estimated $95,000 a year it will cost to add the early morning run.
Money earmarked for maintenance could be used to cover that cost because the boat will not be pulled out of the water this year, Richardson said.
Wallace was directed to work with island residents on other schedule changes. They need to happen before the county implements its new ticketing system in July.
The entire council will have to vote on the changes because they require a supplemental budget request.
After getting support from the majority of council at the committee meeting last week, Richardson said he doesn’t anticipate any pushback.
“We’re adding an early morning run,” he said. “Everybody agrees.”
Paying for the ride
A combination of rider fares and a subsidy from Pierce County’s road fund pay for ferry service, which is used mostly by Anderson Island residents.
Fares cover 47 percent of the estimated $9.4 million operation costs and then about $900,000 is used from the county road fund, according to Deb Wallace, the county’s airport and ferry administrator.
Ideally, the county would like fares to pay for 80 percent of operating costs, but that would require significant fare increases that aren’t realistic, she said.