Comparison of ferry costs and fares in Washington

Jim Dickinson has compiled a rather comprehensive set of tables with relative costs and fares of a wide range of ferries run in Washington (3 pages).  He’s done a great job, including good footnotes and some interpretation.

Now we all can see how the Whatcom County Ferry System compares with others.  It rather looks to me like Whatcom County is #1 in the ferry fares that it charges, without also being #1 in expenses.

14 thoughts on “Comparison of ferry costs and fares in Washington

  1. Thanks Jim for the information. How many of those Washington state ferry runs dock at another sovereign nation/reservation? I wonder how many ferries in the entire US dock at another nation/reservation? I would be interested in those numbers if they exist. It appears we may have a unique situation with the Lummi Nation being the gate keepers so to speak on the Gooseberry side. They appear to have the ability to ask, and perhaps get, what ever they want for the priviledge of passage. I’m sure they’re well aware of the fares charged statewide, and also understand the quality of their position at the table.

    I also think if we want to encourage walk on traffic, or if the walk on traffic increases by default, we better get a larger, improved parking area on the Gooseberry side. Where will all the present and future walk ons stand in a storm? The phone booth won’t cut it. Anderson Island certainly has a nice waiting area. I wonder what effect the parking negotiations are going to have on the bottom line, and whether the Council understands the need for increased parking capacity, not just the half submerged cage we use now.

    I’m sure all of these questions have been posed to the County, and they’re diligently working on solutions within the constraints of their newly realized budget shortfalls. Their decision to postpone the negotiations and mediation until after the elections was a prudent move. Now they have a better understanding of the funding future. I understand the next two years will make this one look like a walk in the park. We shall see the outcome shortly.


    • Would the Anacortes to Sidney B.C. run by WSF fit into the foreign sovereign docking theory at;

      Or the Pt. Angeles to Victoria B.C. dock, by Black Ball Lines, operating a boat, from before there was such a thing as a WSF?

      Or Bellingham to Prince Rupert run, by the Alaska Marine Highway, another former private ferry system, Alaska Steamship

      I notice every one, is less expensive using Jim’s cost per mile analysis.

      However that’s not truly suprising, just analize many other Whatcom County government operations, the most expensive in the world.

  2. Thank you, Jim. Like your other posts, this is very detailed and telling… The data support the growing feeling that the proposed rate increases are just too much for this little community to handle. Thanks for your work.

  3. Thanks Todd for the plethora of links. I’m more interested in comparing apples to apples. Is there a ferry anywhere that docks on tribal land? Does the ferry operator lease the land from the tribe? What, if anything, does the ferry operator pay the tribe for the privilege of passage. If the operator does make a lease payments, what were the terms and how did they arrive at those terms….should be public record. I’m looking for another example of like circumstances. Is this an unprecedented situation we find ourselves in? I wonder what the ferry rates would be on the runs mentioned above if a tribe wanted 300K per year plus parking, 4 million in lump sum, and infrastructure improvements? Of course this is all an exercise for a lazy Sunday afternoon…the County knows what it has to do….in my mind it’s just a matter of politics, election cycles and the like….do they lower the hammer all at once and get it done, or just pound the nail a small amount every time there’s a “fiscal crisis” …..the frog on slow boil technique. Time will tell.

    Although the lease will be set at xx years for xxx dollars, the rates and schedule will remain open ended. The County and the State understand that we are sailing in uncharted waters, and will be for some time. Whatcom county, due to it’s geographical location, has another set of problems ahead, on top of the macro economic picture….the Canadian/Vancouver housing market has begun it’s long overdue correction. This will put pressure on County revenues going forward. The rates and schedule remains open ended for a reason. We truly live in interesting times.

    Anyways, thanks again.


    • Bert Sagara poses an interesting question of what constitutes a reasonable payment for the “privilege of passage”. There are long traditions, involving principles of law dating back to the Magna Carta, in support of the public good and convenience, favoring public ways and against “evil tolls.

      But, for obvious reasons, the Lummi do not rely on English Common Law for their perspective on tribal sovereignty. Hence, when reading precedents, references to sovereign authority are likely to suggest very different meanings to non-tribal and tribal citizens. This can only gain more attention as it plays out.

      Under the standards of law as we generally understand them, regulation of public ways and ferries is under the jurisdiction of the state and according to precedents of Publici Juris – the public good. But questions of the extent of Lummi sovereignty are only now being framed.

      Ferry issues between states are generally left to the states and adjudicated under these longstanding precedents. But federal control is always supreme in such issues between nations, when reliance upon treaties is necessary. Therefore, the legitimacy of County negotiations diminishes in direct proportion to the extent Lummi sovereignty is intended as a nation.

      This keenly underscores the irresponsibility of federal agencies, officials and representatives in their steadfast avoidance of involvement, and should suggest that increased political efforts at the federal level may still be warranted and necessary. Ultimately, the Lummi challenge to federal authority over navigable water may be too dangerous a precedent to set.

      Anyway, given that applicability and interpretations may vary widely, here is some interesting reading of general principle from:

      “A General View of the Origin and Nature of the Constitution and Government of the United States (deduced from the Political History and Condition of the Colonies and States from 1774 until 1788 and the Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States together with Opinions in the Cases decided at January Term, 1837, arising on the Restraints on the Powers of the States)”, by Henry Baldwin (Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States – 1837)

      (p145)”” By the common law it is clear that all arms of the sea, coves, creeks, &c. where the tide ebbs and flows, are the property of the sovereign, unless appropriated by some subject, in virtue of a grant, or prescriptive right which is founded on the supposition of a grant;” 1 Pick. 182; “the principles of the common law were well understood by the colonial legislature.” ” Those who acquired the property on the shore were restricted from such a use of it, as would impair the public right of passing over the water.” ” None but the sovereign power can authorize the interruption of such passages, because this power alone has the right to judge whether the public convenience may be better served by suffering bridges to be thrown over the water, than by suffering the natural passages to remain free;” ib. 184. “By the common law and the immemorial usage of this government, all navigable waters are public property for the use of all the citizens, and there must be some act of the sovereign power direct or derivative, to authorize any interruption of them.” ” A navigable river is of common right a public highway, and a general authority to lay out a new highway, must not be so extended as to give a power to obstruct an open highway, already in the use of the public;” ib. 185,87.”

      (p153) “A claim of toll at a place where no toll has been granted, or where no consideration for it exists, is void by magna charta and the statute of Westminster, which prohibit all evil tolls; such as are exacted where none are due, exacting unreasonable toll where reasonable toll only is due, or claiming toll through, without fair consideration or reasonable recompense to the public; 2 Co. Inst. 219.”

      “Toll traverse, or a toll demanded for passing on or over the private property of the claimant[Charles River Bridge v. Warren Bridge et al.], or using it in any other way, is of a different description; being founded on the right which every man has to the exclusive enjoyment of what is exclusively his private property, its use by others is a sufficient consideration for the exaction of toll; Mo. 575; 2 Wils. 299; Cowp. 47, 8. But whenever toll is exacted for the passage over a public water, the nature of it changes; its foundation not being property, it rests on a grant or prescription, and if the toll is unreasonable the grant is void; 2 Co. Inst. 221, 2.”

  4. The BIA NW Division funds one ferry system in AK. They probably have a general responsibility to effectively manage all transportation within their jurisdiction. Mining their own internal public transportation policy might yield some very good toeholds. Whatcom County has for many years had a cooperative agreement with them to manage and maintain miles of roads on the Lummi reservation.

    My studies to date strongly suggest that the Lummi Island Ferry exists in it’s own unique statutory purgatory.

    Ferries are generally protected from fees and tolls unrelated to improvements or public benefit. They usually must have a franchise to operate. Or it may be that the Lummi Island Ferry is one of the “…many ferries (that) were in operation which had no definite authority to show for their existence, but which had existed so long that it could not be shown that they were not rightfully established.” Maybe. Certainly records were not well kept.

    Federal law has left most local ferry matters to the states because they are uniquely local services. However, when federal decisions are made, they supersede all others.

    Under Washington State law, the ferry would require a franchise if the Lummi Island Ferry terminal was within ten statute miles of any other state ferry terminal. The Orcas ferry terminal is a bit over 12 statute miles away. Ergo, no franchise. Purgatory.

    State law contemplates only ferries within or between counties. The law is silent on ferries within counties that must cross nations. No Law, no precedent.

    But, it also seems generally accepted that “authority to a county court to establish ferries does not include the right to establish them over rivers upon the further shore of which lies a foreign nation.”

    Probably the County, consistent with federal policy for intervention in historic disputes of this nature, actually has no legal authority to franchise the ferry or negotiate an international contract. That puts an especially weird twist on events to date.

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