Recap: Ferry Issues Meeting with Jack Louws

Meeting Report: Part 2

The following is a summary of some highlights from Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws’ presentation about ferry issues at the public meeting held on Lummi Island on Tuesday May 19, 2015 (Nancy Ging and Wynne Lee, authors).  About 120 people, mostly islanders, attended. Some non-tribal residents from Gooseberry Point also were present.  Rhayma Blake, president of Protection Lummi Island Community (PLIC), published another, briefer summary on the PLIC website.

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Executive Louws began by stating that it is his intent to maintain the current level of ferry service to Lummi Island into the future.

He next addressed the County’s position on the Lummi Nation’s new marina construction, as that will impact ferry docking at Gooseberry Pt.  He described what he sees as a very exciting opportunity to work in partnership with Lummi Nation to carry out the project in two initial phases.

In Phase 1, the County and Lummi Nation would work together to get federal TIGER (Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery) grants–a relatively new thing, so details are not yet fully available–and necessary permits, etc. for

  • relocating and building a new ferry terminal at Gooseberry Pt., including staging and parking
  • rebuilding or refurbishing the terminal on the Island, and
  • building a new ferry.
Since moving the dock is a much more expansive and expensive change than the current lease requires, Louws also wants an assurance that the County will have something closer to “in perpetuity” access to Gooseberry for ferry docking. He doesn’t think the current lease expiration date of approximately 30 years is long enough to justify spending the amount of money required to completely relocate the dock.

Phase 1 (moving the dock) has to be completed before the Lummi Nation can carry out Phase 2 (funding and permitting their new marina and enlarging the fish processing plant). Louws believes that gives them every reason to support us in accomplishing these goals. In return, the County will support the Nation during Phase 2 funding and permitting efforts. The County and tribal leadership are trying to develop a working partnership for the project. Louws has already received a commitment from US Rep. Del Bene to help get the federal funding when both parties are ready to move ahead.

This will all take several years to accomplish. For one thing, Louws stressed that while this marina project is important to Lummi Nation, it is not their top priority at this time. Louws has been meeting with Lummi leaders monthly and the Lummi Nation is drafting a joint Memorandum of Understanding that will list the goals both groups want to achieve by the end of this project. This will be presented to County Council before Louws would sign it. That’s when the public will be able to provide input.

Louws emphasized that in the meantime the Whatcom Chief is in good operating condition and is very well maintained. Operating costs have been somewhat reduced in the last year or two. He assured Islanders that the County is committed to maintaining the current level of ferry service into the future, just as they have for as long as the County has run the ferry.

Next, Louws spoke about the Hiyu, a state-owned ferry that has been suggested as a possible interim replacement for the Whatcom Chief (or additional vessel) until a new ferry can be built. He thanked the group of islanders who hard worked to prepare their report on this option. Louws explained that the County spent about $8,000 for consultants to determine if the Hiyu would be a viable service option or not.

The three consultants reports indicated that at least $7,000,000 capital expenses would be required to adapt the docks on both sides and to adapt the vessel to T Class status (if the latter is even feasible). Those reports will soon be posted on the county’s Ferry site. Increased operating expenses were also projected. Louws emphasized that the Hiyu and the Whatcom Chief were built in the same generation, only five years apart. He sees acquiring the Hiyu as a “step to the side” instead of a “step into the future”. He believes the TIGER grants and a completely new vessel offer the best current opportunity to “step forward”. Louws concluded by saying that he will tell the County Council that he will not make a bid on the Hiyu if and when it becomes available for sale.

Finally, Louws addressed adjusting the ferry fares. The County set a goal several years ago to maintain a balance in the Ferry Fund equal to 90% of the previous year’s operating expenses. (authors’ note: we think this is just for the fare-based portion which is why the fund started with $1.5 million balance, but need tocheck). The fund is approaching that goal but isn’t there yet. While Louws doesn’t feel that the surcharges can be completely removed at this time, he does think a reduction of 25-40% of the surcharge might be possible for the most frequent ferry users. He said that LIFAC is already working with Public Works to develop a sustainable proposal to ensure that fares will be more stable into the future instead of changing frequently and so dramatically.

Louws’ presentation lasted about 25 minutes. Then, the written questions that had been submitted by citizens were read and responded to by Louws in the following Q&A session.  Only a few of those questions needed to be set aside for answering later. The plan is for LIFAC to make answers available publicly.

A list of all of the questions has been published here, as promised by LICA and LIFAC, in a post that also has a link to the full audio of the entire meeting. That information also should be put in the Island Libary and shared with islanders via Paul Davis’s Brown Betty email service and other island communication channels

2 thoughts on “Recap: Ferry Issues Meeting with Jack Louws

  1. I’m not trying for the ‘Frequent Commenter Award”, as I was the last one to post something here on Feb 3, but wanted to share my thoughts on point 3 – Fares. (hint: remove moderation)
    Yes, the Ferry Fund was set up in Jan 2006 at $1.587m to act as a shock absorber each year. When it fell to $.6m the county enacted the across the board Surcharge of $3 for each fare class. This was barely noticeable for large truck fares, but devastating for pedestrians. There were no percentages listed as a target in the original ordinance creating the fund, but it did work out to about 85% of operating cost for 2006. Inflating that number at 90% would yield a current fund target at about $2.2m, so Exec Louws is pretty close on that. Dir Abart gave testimony in 2014 to the Council it should be $1.5m, and LIFAC Chair McKenzie stated PW wanted it to be 1 year+1mo of operating cost, which was later denied by Dir Ney this year.
    Short answer is “Who Knows?” It’s all opinion.
    The Ferry Task Force made a recommendation on Enterprise Funds and had an example of how the Ferry Fund could be allocated, (appendix B3) using 3 months of operating cost, plus drydock and repairs, which would have yielded $1.2m when they issued their report.
    LIFAC should be working towards a stable Ferry Fund whichever method is chosen, but it should be in the form of amending the Ordinance that created it, and not at the mercy of interpretation.
    FARES: Now that SB5307 has been signed into law, increasing MVFT contributions to the 4 counties that operate ferries, and indexing that to inflation each year, LIFAC and PW should take that revenue into account when deciding rate reductions and Ferry Fund balances. The amendment to SB5307 islanders pushed for was to eliminate the Surcharge from restrictions on fare reductions. Non surcharge rates as of Jan1 of this year are now locked in, so no reduction is possible if MVET funds are applied for.
    LIFAC should undo the wrong created by the $3 Surcharge, cancel it completely, and then adjust the current non-surcharge rates up accordingly to meet 55/45 cost recovery requirements. This leads to fares that fall back into line with every other ferry system on the west coast as far as ratios between vehicles and pedestrians, and discounts to multi-ride ticket purchases.
    More tinkering with the just a few fare classes is not the way to solve this problem.

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