Restroom closure means Point Defiance ferry riders will have to hold it a bit longer

Going potty before leaving on a road trip is always a good idea.

It might be even more so now for folks intending to take the ferry from Point Defiance to Vashon Island.

Pierce Transit, Washington State Ferries and Metro Parks Tacoma on Wednesday intend to close the public bathrooms they have jointly operated for nearly 30 years at the ferry terminal.

That means folks who need to heed the call of nature while awaiting the arrival of the Chetzamoka will have to hold it until they board the boat or make a dash to public facilities just past Anthony’s restaurant.

As is typical in the elimination of public services, money is at the root of the problem.

But the fate of these public toilets is surprisingly complicated, at least to hear Pierce Transit spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet tell it.

The story began in 1988.

That’s when Metro Parks, the state Department of Transportation and Pierce Transit agreed to build and operate a passenger shelter, bus layover zone and bathroom facility near the ferry terminal, Japhet said.

The restroom portion included public toilets and a bathroom for the sole use of ferry employees and Pierce Transit drivers laying over there.

The structures were built on land owned by Metro Parks, which operates Point Defiance Park, and that agency was responsible for maintaining the bathrooms under a 20-year agreement, Japhet said.

In 2008, Pierce Transit assumed maintenance responsibility for the staff restroom.

“In 2009, Pierce Transit began cleaning and maintaining both the staff and public restrooms, and has done so since that time,” Japhet said. “We estimate that between cleaning, maintenance, supplies, labor and the like, Pierce Transit has spent about $175,000 to maintain these facilities since 2009.”

That’s a lot of toilet paper, and Pierce Transit officials began to wonder whether it was worth the cost.

So they commissioned a survey of sorts to find out who was using the public restrooms, Japhet said. Pierce Transit staff members spent a week last summer watching who came and went from the facilities, she said. According to their observations, 248 people used the bathrooms over a five-day span, she said, with about 45 being Pierce Transit riders.

“What we found was that very few of the public restroom users were transit riders,” Japhet said. “Anecdotally, we also found that restroom supply usage nearly doubled in the summer months, but our ridership did not change much over those months.”

Upshot: Pierce Transit was paying for toilets where transit riders didn’t, um, conduct their business.

“Given that very few transit riders use the facility, it is difficult for Pierce Transit to justify spending about $25,000 per year to maintain and stock the Point Defiance restrooms,” Japhet said. “Our agency’s responsibility is to serve transit customers.”

All might not be lost for people waiting in the ferry line with full bladders.

Metro Parks is studying restroom use and location throughout Point Defiance Park, agency spokesman Michael Thomspon said.

“We’re looking at the best longer-term options for people,” he said. “In the meantime, there are restrooms nearby at the marina, and we plan to have portables available during peak times, including during the summer.”

Also, Japhet said, Pierce Transit and Washington State Ferries “will be monitoring feedback” about the closure of the ferry terminal toilets.

“Based on feedback and/or if things change in the future, one or more of the entities may elect to revisit the status of these restrooms, at which time a decision would be made based on data,” she said.

In the meantime, Pierce Transit and Washington State Ferries have agreed to split the cost of keeping open the staff restroom.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam