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A drawbridge these days is usually a symbol of mutual public cooperation. They rise to let ships pass and close so surface transportation can resume. In days past, it was more a symbol of control, a means of castle defense. Like a switch opening and closing a circuit, it allowed or denied access. Whoever operates the drawbridge is in control. The MV Whatcom Chief serves as a drawbridge to Lummi Island and has become subject to a complex struggle for control. You’ve heard of back to the future? This is a bit more like forward to the past.
For many years, Whatcom County assumed they were in control. The road to Lummi Island was federally approved, tribally affirmed, and the ferry was enrolled by Congress as a common carrier to provide the service. Whatcom County built the road from Bellingham, and installed and maintained many miles of public roads in the vicinity. In the lexicon of transportation planning, ferries are usually grouped with bridges. The drawbridge to the island seemed to belong to the county.
However, a few years ago, the Lummi Nation bravely threatened to close the road and adroitly negotiated the county into millions in rent and other improvements over the term of the agreement. This dramatically raised fares, created a general obligation for the public and made the always-difficult fiscal job of operating a ferry even more trying. Lummi Nation thus exerted their own control over the drawbridge.
A drawbridge with multiple nodes of control is bound to encounter struggle. And now, additional elements appear to be adding to the complexity: whether islanders really want better service, and who might eventually provide it.
Built in 1962 and currently at 170% of its originally expected life, the boat islanders board to get across Hale’s Passage is old. Despite a spiraling maintenance budget, a stern tube failed suddenly and without warning in 2010, requiring Coast Guard assistance to stay afloat and stranding cars on the island for days. In 2014, the ferry again required emergency maintenance that interrupted service. More recently, some have observed a driveline shudder, raising questions about whether metal fatigue has set in on the structure. Earlier, a major rebuild that would have assured many more years of continued service was avoided. Nevertheless, until recently, the Whatcom Chief has one of the best overall service records for a ferry of its class.
Meanwhile, to meet demand, the ferry often makes an extra run during peak hours, especially in the high season, and routinely loads more vehicles than the vessel was originally designed to carry. Also, lanes on the ferry are notably substandard. The cramped quarters often interfere with fully opening vehicle doors - an obvious impediment to implementing emergency procedures - as vehicle lane widths should allow passengers to freely and rapidly exit vehicles in case of emergency. The last thing you want is folks trapped in their cars on a sinking boat.
The handwriting is on the wall. Everyone knows the ferry will eventually need to be replaced but the county has considered and rejected the prospect of having a new ferry built, electing to rely on maintenance to keep the boat afloat, even as annual O&M costs have risen from $750,000 in 1999 to over $2 million today. Meanwhile, federal programs for new ferry funding have shifted priorities toward servicing urban populations, a criterion neither the Lummi Nation nor Lummi Island meet. This makes more capable, surplus used vessels look more attractive to some. There are ferries available in Canada, but the Jones Act prevents foreign built vessels from landing in consecutive U.S. ports. There are surplus U.S. ferries elsewhere, but delivering them is problematic.
Thus, attention turned toward the Hiyu, an idled Washington state ferry scheduled to be surplused. The Whatcom Chief is almost 100 feet long, 44 feet wide, and draws 9 feet of water. It will carry 20 cars and 103 people. The Hiyu is 162 feet long, 63 feet wide, and draws 11.5 feet of water under normal circumstances. It will carry 34 cars and 199 people. It is a substantially larger vessel with the capacity to meet the island’s demand well into the future. It is just a bit younger than the Whatcom Chief, but has enjoyed top drawer maintenance of the much larger Washington State Ferry System in addition to having received the major refit the Whatcom Chief did not.
The county has raised many objections to the prospect of using the Hiyu as an alternative to the Whatcom Chief. Many of them are easily argued, but one stands out: the $7 million cost of widening the Gooseberry Point terminal to accept a wider boat. Remarkably, the county saw fit earlier to narrow the landing so the only vessel capable of servicing vehicles from the island is the Whatcom Chief. In other words, if the aging Whatcom Chief should fail, islanders are stranded. Providing a facility for alternative vessel service seems like a no-brainer.
Besides being able to reach alternate ports, there are other compelling arguments in favor of the Hiyu. It got its scheduled refit and requires drydock only every other year. That saves money. Its larger capacity would mitigate long waits, deter fewer visitors, buoy island business, more easily capture additional fares and otherwise collect more revenue per unit of service. One study makes a conservative estimate of aggregate savings of around $500,000 per year. That’s enough to start a reserve fund toward the capital expense of a new ferry. Additionally, the more capable Hiyu could travel to other islands consistent with the original Congressional approval of the road to Lummi Island that contemplated connection with Orcas Island. Finally, before it goes to auction, state surplusing guidelines allow for friendly transfers of such assets to other government jurisdictions. In other words, the boat could likely be acquired essentially for free.
So, why not a larger boat? It is evident to anyone who is paying attention that the county is not particularly thrilled to have the ferry obligation on their books, and would probably hand the operation off to anyone else in half a heartbeat. Looking forward to the time when Lummi Nation finally builds a much needed harbor for their fleet, the lease contract requires the county to move the Gooseberry terminal, at their own expense, to accommodate the tribe’s design - another large, undesirable expense. It’s understandable the county’s interest in controlling the drawbridge should fade in view of the burgeoning costs of operations and such daunting impending expenditures.
As the county’s enthusiasm apparently wanes, there are indications that islanders’ interest in controlling the drawbridge is growing. Interest in the Hiyu is just one side. Those in favor of a larger ferry see benefits to bringing more customers to local businesses, facilitating more economic forestry operations or adding the capacity to connect with more distant destinations. However, recent notes from the Lummi Island Ferry Advisory Committee reflect discussions around determining appropriate Levels of Service (LOS) and the implications for imposing concurrency requirements. In Growth Management Act language, LOS and concurrency are used to restrict development until adequate infrastructure is either provided through development or budgeted in the six year capital plans. So, it seems some islanders would consider limiting service levels to control development on the island. The question of whether the island will trend generally toward greater economic sufficiency or a more exclusive retirement retreat has already been substantially propelled toward the latter by the radical fare increases imposed by Lummi Nation. While many younger working families have already made, or are planning their exodus, other residents seem content, unconcerned with the costs and disinclined toward better service. Islanders’ struggle over how they will control the drawbridge could take a long time to resolve.
But there are other considerations. If there is an emergency on Lummi Island, like fire during a drought, and the ferry should fail, how will the community escape? In the event of a natural disaster, like the widely anticipated earthquake and tsunami, or a debris torrent in the Nooksack River from a volcanic event at Mount Baker, it is generally acknowledged that dikes will be destroyed and the Gooseberry Point penninsula will again become the island of Chah-choo-sen, as it was when originally reserved for the tribe. As such, islanders and Lummi are likely to eventually share an equal interest in having a ferry that can reliably travel to another terminal, probably in Bellingham.
So, who will control the drawbridge? Besides disagreements among island residents, the county has already signaled their disinterest by abdicating a well documented right to free access over the tideland approach to the ferry route. This saddled the system with unprecedented costs unrelated to providing service. They rejected a plan to renew the necessary infrastructure and intentionally made modifications that severely restrict vessel access. Lummi Nation has artfully asserted their interest by imposing $200,000+ per year rents, $6 million in other improvements and further burdensome contractual obligations. Notably, the Lummi, too, have been to see the Hiyu.
It remains to be seen whether the drawbridge to Lummi Island will be operated to exert feudal style control or to promote mutual public accommodation. Probably, the conflicting interests will only be resolved through the type of mediation that is a matter of federal policy in longstanding disputes between tribes and non-tribal neighbors - an effort that has so far been fastidiously avoided by representatives at all levels of government. Until then, the struggle over who will draw the bridge is only likely to exacerbate differences. And continue indefinitely.