The MV Chelan, pictured here arriving in Sidney in 2018, is the only vessel capable of servicing the Sidney-Anacortes run. A new report finds a privately-run service feasible but subject to many obstacles. (Black Press Media file photo)

The MV Chelan, pictured here arriving in Sidney in 2018, is the only vessel capable of servicing the Sidney-Anacortes run. A new report finds a privately-run service feasible but subject to many obstacles. (Black Press Media file photo)

Private ferry service between Sidney and Anacortes feasible, according to new report

But private service would face obstacles, and not provide much benefit to state ferry bottom line

A new American report finds a privately-run automobile ferry between Vancouver Island and Washington State feasible while giving supporters of the state-run ferry system ammunition.

The Joint Transportation Committee of the Washington State legislature commissioned the study on two related issues. The first concerns the state of the vessel fleet capable of servicing the Sidney-Anacortes route.

The April 2020 retirement of the MV Elwha has left Washington State Ferries with one vessel — the MV Chelan, itself more than 50 years old — capable of servicing the route under the Safety of Life at Sea certification standards for vessels operating in international waters.

The second issue concerns the interest of private companies to service the route. While a bill designed to facilitate a private service failed to secure sufficient legislative support earlier in 2020, the Washington State legislature nonetheless commissioned a study into the feasibility of private service.

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The study found a private service would be feasible from a legal perspective, but also rife with challenges without necessarily addressing the problems facing the existing state-run ferry service.

For one, a private service would likely have to sail under the flag of a country other than the United States because of the high costs of constructing new vessels and limited availability of vessels sailing under the American flag appropriate for this route, according to the report. Only vessels built and owned in the United States can ferry passengers between U.S. ports (the Sidney-Anacortes route also stops at Friday Harbour on San Juan Island).

But using a foreign-flagged vessel would come with several drawbacks, including higher staffing costs to meet pilot requirements, thereby leading to higher fares. Regardless of vessel type, a private service would also carry fewer vehicles.

The report also found the use of a foreign-flagged vessel under private ownership would be unlikely to service the San Juan Islands. San Juan County would experience a negative economic impact, losing 21 jobs from reduced visitor spending, and $2.3 million in business revenue, the report noted.

The use of a private service would also not significantly help Washington State Ferries’ (WSF) bottom-line.

“Discontinuing the Anacortes to Sidney service would likely have a modest financial impact to WSF over a 20-year period,” reads the report. “With only a portion of the vessel service hours dedicated to Sidney and the remaining service hours provide domestic service, privatization results in a greater net loss to WSF’s operating program.” Privatization would also not lower WSF’s fleet requirements to reliably maintain service levels.

Other factors may also come into play. A private service would likely require a new terminal in Anacortes or elsewhere in Washington State. Any changes in ferry service (including the elimination of a route) require approval by Washington State legislators following public input from affected ferry users and Washington State’s current lease of its Sidney terminal (on municipal-owned land) runs until 2031 following a 2o-year extension.

Ferries have operated between Sidney and Anacortes for nearly a century, first under private ownership, then by WSF since 1951.

Ferry service between Sidney and Anacortes has been suspended since March 2020 because of COVID-19.

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