With the news Washington State Ferries won’t be resuming its service between Sidney and Anacortes for seven years, the Town of Sidney will have to put some thought into what to do with the nearly five-acre waterfront terminal property sitting idle.
Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith said news the route won’t be returning this summer was disappointing given the economic and community benefits it has brought since starting 100 years ago, but he recognizes the service has been facing challenges.
“We were hopeful, particularly given the long history of the ferry service here, that it would return this year,” said McNeil-Smith. “In 2019, the passenger level was about 135,000, so there are certainly tourism impacts to local businesses and throughout the region … I believe the ferry connection is important also for the connection between our small communities of Sidney and Anacortes. We have had a 27-year formal sister city relationship with them.”
While the route was not resumed when borders opened up due to staffing shortages, the latest Washington State Ferries Service Restoration Plan update indicated those shortages have improved, though crew availability and recruitment remain a challenge. A new shortage has also emerged which is expected to take years to resolve and which specifically impacts the Sidney route – a lack of vessels.
The plan showed the fleet at 21 vessels, which is the minimum required to operate a full schedule. However, two of those vessels must be taken out of service each summer for maintenance and only one vessel in the fleet has the additional equipment required for international voyages. It is needed to cover unplanned breakdowns and is not available for the Sidney route. A second vessel equipped for international routes was retired in 2019.
An order of priority has been set for the resumption of routes, and as the only international route offered by the commuter-focused organization, the Sidney-Anacortes route is at the bottom of the list, although half of the route running from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands has resumed.
The earliest newly built vessels will be able to enter service is 2027. But more existing vessels are expected to be retired before the new vessels arrive, leading to Washington State Ferries’ conclusion it won’t be able to resume the Sidney route until 2030.
That leaves the question of what to do with the town-owned ferry terminal. McNeil-Smith said Washington State Ferries paid $178,000 to the town in 2022 as part of a long-term lease of the property set to expire in 2031, as well as some $144,000 in taxes to the town and other levels of government despite the property sitting vacant, meaning it continues to be an important source of revenue for the town.
While he said it remains very early days, there will need to be a discussion about the property’s future, given its prominence in the town.
“Sidney and Washington State Ferries have had a long-standing relationship over many decades,” McNeil-Smith said. “We have both been very committed to maintaining this service. With the new announcement with regards to not restoring service until 2030, council and town staff will need to understand our legal options regarding the lease and to consider all options for the terminal site, with input from our community.”