Massive Ferry Fare Increase Threatens Farming, Working Families on Guemes Island

By Stephen D. Orsini

As I drove to the Guemes Island Ferry from my home on the Island’s North Beach, I passed Allen Bush Jr.’s field where a nice herd of Black Angus with calves busily grazed on spring grass. Growing up on the island, I worked my high school summers haying for Charles Bush and Allen Bush Sr.. Though third generation Allen Jr. doesn’t own this herd of Black Angus, he still rents out his lush fields.

Allen Jr. says that the proposed massive 71% increase in Guemes Island Ferry fares will likely put him out of business permanently. The cost of moving these cattle to the island in the oversized vehicles they require will make his operation unable to compete with the mainland.

Another cattle farmer on Guemes, Glen Veal, whose father moved to the island in the 1940s, has come to the same conclusion.  Veal just sold the last of his cattle herd but hoped to continue to bale hay to sell on the mainland. Glen says the fare increase, with the first increment, a 14% jump July 1, 2023, will likely take him out business.

100 Years of Ferry Service

Guemes Island is a different environment from the rest of Skagit County, as are the other two major islands, Sinclair and Cypress, in its jurisdiction.  It is likely that these islands should have been placed into San Juan County.  Of the three, Guemes has had ferry service for 100 years.  

Skagit County has been governed by three commissioners dating back to a period when they were Road Commissioners.  The County is historically oriented to agriculture and logging.  The Skagit County three-commissioner system yields governance which has over time never understood their island appendages and the ferry system which services one of their islands.  

The Guemes Island Ferry is managed by the Public Works Department which is chartered with managing the County’s 850 miles of roads.  The Public Works Department is funded by a countywide (unicorporated Skagit County) line item tax based on the assessed value of property. While Guemes Island has a tiny fraction of the County’s roads, islanders pay the same rate into the Road Fund as other county residents.

Decades of Precedent Establishing Fares

For the past five decades, since Skagit County asked islanders to form a Ferry Committee to represent the ridership, setting the Guemes Island ferry fares adhered to the “bridge” analogy. The capital costs of the island’s “bridge”, the Guemes Island Ferry, were paid, like all other roads and bridges, from capital funding sources that a county can raise from a variety of Federal and State of Washington sources.  The current Guemes Island Ferry, the Guemes, was paid for by Federal funds. The Operations and Maintenance (O&M) costs of the Guemes Ferry have been shared by the Skagit County Road Fund, the State of Washington, and ferry fares paid by the ferry users.

Under the resolutions adopted in 2010 and 2011, the Fare Target Methodology has been based on a five-year rolling average of actual costs. These costs were offset by two streams of revenue, the State Deficit Reimbursement and the State Motor Vehicle Fuel Tax. The County receives these funds because it operates a ferry.  The resolutions specify that, of this total O&M budget, the fare box is to pay 65%, a level set by the County Commissioners.  

County Narrative on Ferry Costs Misleading

The May 10, 2023 issue of Skagit Valley Herald quotes Skagit Public Works Director Grace Kane :

“Currently, local funding for road projects comes from a property tax on unincorporated Skagit County. This money is generally used as a local match for larger state or federal grants, though a large portion of it is used to subsidize operations and maintenance for the Guemes Island Ferry.”

This is a misleading statement. In 2022, the total Road Fund budget for Skagit County was about $32.8 million.  The County paid about $1.1 million from the Road Fund toward the Guemes Ferry O &M.  This is about 3.3% of the total Road Fund budget which cannot be labeled a large portion of the Road Fund.

County Projects Increased costs

The Skagit County Public Works Department currently projects Guemes Island Ferry O&M costs will be more than $700,000 above the current planned budget.  They propose funding this gap solely from the Guemes ferry ridership necessitating a total fare increase of about 71%.  They claim their proposal is necessary to allow the Road Fund to maintain the roads and bridges in the remainder of Skagit County which have also experienced inflationary pressure.

The County hired Seattle-based KPFF Consulting Engineers which developed the budget projections and the resulting fare increase recommendations. Since the size of the increase is shocking to islanders who are dependent on the ferry, the plan is to phase in the full fare increase over 5 years with prices rising about 14% each year.

Ferry Committee Shut Out of Calculation Process

In spite of the long history of engaging with the Ferry Committee to set ferry fares, the details of how this new model will work are not immediately apparent. Unlike in past decades, the calculation process excluded any Ferry Committee input. There is a lack of transparency in how the new fare model was developed, and where the projected budget figures came from. The Ferry Committee asked for a review of the budget projections but received no response.

Cost Projections Fail to Include Expected Cost Savings/ Usual Revenue Streams

The KPFF representative stated in the final presentation of the report that there is no State Motor Vehicle Fuel Tax nor State Deficit Reimbursement for county ferries credited to fare box revenue in this model unlike in previous years. The County is still receiving these funds, but apparently is no longer considering them an offset to ferry expenses though that is their specific purpose. 

In another puzzling projection by KPFF, the five-year projected Operations & Maintenance budgets are for the current diesel ferry, the Guemes.  No reductions in cost are projected for a new high-efficiency electric ferry- or any other O&M savings. However, their report does state “The upward trend [in O&M] is driven both by increasing costs of operation and the increasing needs of the aging vessel.” The week of April 24, 2023, Skagit County received $14 million from the State of Washington for the completion of its planned new electric ferry.  In promoting the all-electric ferry at public meetings on the island, then County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt stated that the new vessel would immediately reduce O&M costs by about 25% according to residents present at those meetings.

Actual Costs Not Considered?

Due to the lack of transparency, the projected budget calculation looks like an artifice to ensure collection of the fare increase over five years, and apparently has nothing to do with the actual costs of operation. The promised O&M cost savings of a new electric ferry, now scheduled to be online in 2025, will not be credited to island fares but will accrue to the Road Fund. Any other overpayment in fares will automatically revert to the Road Fund. This means Guemes Islanders will pay into the Road Fund over and above the property tax obligations they share with all Skagit County property owners, and in addition to ferry fares.

More Possible Impacts on Families

The new fare structure proposes to permit youth 18 years and under to ride free. This is to help families with children continue to support education and sports activities in Anacortes.  (Guemes Island property tax contains a substantial assessment for Anacortes schools.)  Like the farmers, a number of working families say they do not know how they can afford to continue to live on the island. Further, the value of this youth fare policy is questionable should the County terminate runs after 6:00 pm. This was proposed as a possible cost reduction step in the ferry’s operation, and would not only prevent students from participating in evening school activities, but effectively trap islanders on (or off) the island after 6:00pm.

A More Equitable Solution?

Given the structure of the new ferry fare calculations, the severe rate hike will shift County transportation cost increases to a small group of citizens while continuing to distribute some of the fare revenue plus the bulk of the Road Fund taxes from the lucrative tax base of the island to the rest of the County. If you think this is only a threat to Guemes Islanders, think again. In a meeting reported by Skagit Valley Herald on May 10, 2023, we learned that Skagit County is evaluating whether to ask residents for help in funding road improvements in their local area, essentially a toll for your road improvements.

Perhaps this appears to them to be a more favorable political solution to meet county-wide shortfalls rather than the more equitable solution of an increase in the Road Fund tax county-wide. That would mean all County residents share equally in funding “roads and bridges”, and islanders continue to support our “bridge” with ferry fares we can afford.

Stephen Orsini grew up on Guemes Island and, after working 30 years in the electrical power industry, retired to the same property he grew up on.  He has written free-lance articles published in National Fisherman, Sail, Sailing World, Oceans, Compass, LineTime and Private Pilot Magazines.  His non-fiction book, Nightmare on the Scottie, The Maiden Voyage of a Doomed King Crabber, was published by WSU Press in 2022. Growing up on an island, he was taught to husband its resources.

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