This photo from 1922 shows The Harvest King setting sail to Anacortes from Sidney. (Courtesy of Sidney Museum and Archives)

Sidney concerned proposed funding cuts to Sidney-Anacortes Ferry could hit tourism

Washington State soon to finalize its budget for ferry service

Sidney Mayor Cliff McNeil-Smith warns of potential economic consequences for both ends of the ferry route between Sidney and Anacortes if Washington State does not fully fund the route and comments from a spokesperson all but confirm that funding won’t be coming for a vessel that could serve as backup.

Ian Sterling, spokesperson for the Washington State Ferries, said Monday afternoon that all three versions of the state budget do not include funding for the MV Elwha, one of two vessels in the Washington State Ferries (WSF) fleet certified for the international crossing, along with the MV Chelan. That vessel is said to receive full funding.

The budget process is not yet final, but Sterling expects it to wrap up within the next couple of weeks or even in the next few days.

“The fact that there are three budgets floating around out there [without funding for the Elwha] to me means … that we are probably done putting money in the Elwha, and that would effectively retire it,” he said. He did not rule out the possibility of a late turn in the talks.

If WSF retires the 53-year-old Elwha with its long history of repairs, the Chelan would remain the only vehicle certified to make the international crossing, a situation that would threaten the reliability of service between the two communities. WSF would lack a back-up vessel.

A second issue concerns the possibility that WSF may press the Chelan into service on domestic routes in case other vessels break down. According to published reports in Washington State media, WSF needs 19 vessels to run its summer routes and at least two WSF ferries out for maintenance at any given time. If the Elwha were to retire, WSF would be down to 21 vessels. Washington State has funded a new vessel, a hybrid-electric ferry, but it won’t be available until 2023, according to published reports.

When asked about why Washington State appears unwilling to fund repairs to the Elwha, Sterling pointed to the life-span of the boat, as well competition from other demands.

“It just comes down to money,” he said. “There are a lot of competing asks here in Washington State. We are lucky that we have a governor and a legislature that values ferries and they have proven that by funding money for a brand new vessel, but that vessel won’t be online for another three years.”

RELATED: Washington State Ferries to suspend service to Sidney for almost a month

RELATED: Fares for ferry between United States and Sidney rise Oct. 1

The Sidney-Anacortes routes is arguably the least important route in Washington State’s ferry system in terms of numbers. In 2019, the route with its 115,836 passengers, according to official statistics, accounted for 0.5 per cent of the system’s total passengers.

“It is a route up there that has been under attack. It has been around for almost 100 years and every two years, it seems like it is under attack,” said Sterling. “But hey, it is still with us, and that is good news. Like I said, the state intends to continue to operate the route, and there is money for that.”

McNeil-Smith said Monday morning that he has been in discussions with Mayor Laurie Gere from Sidney’s sister city of Anacortes around this issue. “The sustainability of the ferry route is an enormous concern to both of our communities from a tourism and economic standpoint,” he said.

The route saw a five per cent increase in vehicle passengers and an eight per cent increase in foot passengers during its nine month of operations, said McNeil-Smith. These figures are significant for the local tourism business in Sidney and the region, he said, adding that generations of families, friends, businesses and tourists have relied on this service since its start 99 years ago. Sidney also receives just over $250,000 in ferry terminal lease payments and direct municipal taxes.

McNeil-Smith said he and Gere have been in touch with WSF, as well as elected officials in Washington State to express their concerns.

McNeil-Smith said WSF has told the municipality that completion of Washington State budgets will be finalized in early March and Sidney is keeping an eye on the situation.“WSF will then confirm the level of service to be provided,” he said, adding that local representatives on the local and federal levels are aware of the situation.

Ferry service between Anacortes and Sidney resumes Sunday, March 29 with a ceremony featuring elected officials from both sides.

“We are doing it for the 99th time this year, and look forward to celebrating 100 years next year,” he said.

“The best outcome is that the budgets are approved as per WSF’s request and that they can provide the level of service that they want to with the Chelan, that there is a minimum of disruption to that service through the season.”


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