Pierce County begins study of ferry service to Anderson, Ketron islands

Pierce County has begun an in-depth analysis of its ferry system that, when completed, may help elected leaders balance the wants and needs of island residents with the rest of county taxpayers who largely subsidize ferry operations.

The study will evaluate the ferry system’s financial sustainability and plan for capital needs over the next 14 years.

Residents of Anderson Island who commute to the mainland by ferry differ over what they want to see.

“I feel that our needs have not been very well addressed,” said island resident Ann Dasch. “Since we are paying $4,000 to $7,000 a year in fares, that’s a problem.”

The county operates two 54-car ferries that can hold up to 200 passengers each. Typically one boat at a time runs on the route between the Steilacoom dock and Anderson and Ketron islands. During a typical weekday, the ferry leaves Steilacoom 13 times. The county's ferry-related expenditures were just over $5.4 million in 2014.

The county last conducted a Waterborne Transportation Study in 2003. It resulted in changes to sailing times and proposed fare increases.

Dasch believes changes in that plan were counterproductive to the county’s goal of creating a sustainable ferry service.

Ferry fares don’t cover the cost to run the boat to the islands, resulting in the 381,970 taxpayers of unincorporated Pierce County subsidizing a transit service for 1,037 year-round islanders.

Regular ferry users can buy a value pass that offers a discount over the single ride fare. But the discount decreased by half as a result of the last transportation study, Dasch said.

As a result, it became cheaper for frequent ferry users to drive on the ferry instead of walk on. That means more cars are competing for the 54 spots on the boat. Cars are left behind during busy times of the day, especially in the summer and on holidays, Dasch said.

People have moved off the island in recent years, and Dasch believes that’s because they could no longer afford to commute. Limited sailings, including during rush hour and into the evening, make it difficult for people to work and live on the island, she said.

Dasch and other island residents, including commuters, real estate professionals, some members of the Anderson Island Citizen Advisory Board and the general manager of the island’s homeowners association, have petitioned the county to expand ferry service in recent years.

They worry that limited ferry service and rising fares will cause the island to suffer, including a continued decline in property values.

The transportation study will look at population and demographic data to see whether those fears are legitimate.

Anderson Island resident Dave Jacobsen welcomes the analysis. A member of the Anderson Island Citizen Advisory Board, Jacobsen serves as liaison to the county on ferry and transportation issues.

He moved to the island permanently eight years ago but has visited regularly since he was six weeks old.

He doesn’t agree that the island needs to appeal to working families to be viable.

“I really think the economic viability of the island is stronger from the perspective of weekend and summer homes than it is from any kind of bedroom community model,” Jacobsen said.

Census data show the majority of island residents are retirement age, or nearing retirement.

“Logistically and from cost standpoint, it makes no sense to commute,” Jacobsen said. “That’s part of that dichotomy between the group that wants to see more service and the group that is wanting no change.”

But Dasch worries that tailoring ferry service to retirees hurts the system’s financial stability.

“If the only people it works for are vacationers and retirees, it can’t be anywhere close to a self-sustaining system,” she said.

The result could be even more reliance on general tax dollars, or higher fares, she said.

Dasch and Jacobsen are part of a 10-member ferry advisory committee formed to help with the study. The committee includes island residents, including one from Ketron Island, plus representatives from Anderson Island Fire/Rescue, the Town of Steilacoom and the Steilacoom School District.

The group will address the impact proposed changes to ferry operations would have on users. Seattle-based BERK Consulting is leading the group and the larger study.

Jacobsen believes the committee’s input along with feedback from the Anderson Island Citizen Advisory Board will help shape the plan. But ultimately, the County Council has to approve a plan that pencils out financially, he said.

“I’m just hoping we get something that we can all point to and say ‘OK, this makes sense,’” Jacobsen said.