What is the Ferry Level of Service?

Why review the ferry Level of Service (LOS) now? LIFAC and Public Works are currently exploring the County’s ferry LOS history and options as part of their brief to advise the County Council on a replacement of the Whatcom Chief at some future time.

What  is a “Level of Service”, anyway? In Washington state, LOS is the legal term for how a county, city or other governmental entity defines what it deems ‘acceptable traffic flow’ on roads, ferries etc. They do this supposedly to help plan for the transportation infrastructure that will ‘accommodate’ projected changes in population and development.  The Washington Growth Management Act (1993) requires transportation infrastructure planning to be part of required comprehensive land use planning to accommodate projected growth. The notion is that transportation infrastructure plans should be ‘concurrent’ with development.

Sometime in the 1990s, Whatcom County assigned our ferry system a ‘ferry LOS’ as part of its the ‘transportation concurrency’ part of its comprehensive plan. The current ferry LOS was defined (I think) as the total # of people and/or vehicles transported annually/# island residents, measured at some past point in time.

Does the ferry or any other LOS matter?  Defining a traffic LOS doesn’t necessarily mean that traffic flow is kept ‘reasonable’ from the drivers’ perspective. That’s because local governments can define ‘acceptable’ a traffic LOS, either overall or at specific times (e.g., commute times) that allows very heavily congested roads etc.  So what if the government entity doesn’t have or want to spend more monies to to increase its transportation infrastructure, and if neither developers nor taxpayers are willing to pay more for improvements that would keep traffic congestion down? Well, they can simply lower the ‘acceptable’ LOS, resulting in more traffic congestion as development and population increase.

Examples of ‘traffic planning’ via LOS (best appreciated by those who’ve been in Whatcom County 10+ years).  Guide Meridian, especially at rush hour is definitely worse now than 10 years ago. Looking ahead, think about traffic at the Bakerview Road/I5 interchange as Costco, more apartments, more stores, and more hotels are built, plus (maybe) more airport traffic. Or, consider how traffic has worsened between Seattle and Marysville as the northward population has grown. Yes, some changes have been made to roads, but traffic is still way more congested than it was.

I’m glad LIFAC and Public Works are exploring ideas about changes in island population and the ferry system that might ‘accommodate’ population projections.  But I’ve no illusions that any LOS they recommend as ‘reasonable’ will result in an increased numbers of runs or a larger ferry with more vehicle capacity that might keep car traffic flowing as well as it does now.

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