Lummi Island Drawbridge

The Lummi Island ferry is a very old and decrepit vessel. The state ferry system wants to give us a newer one in great condition. Whatcom County says no. Tip tells the tale.

The Lummi Island ferry is a very old and decrepit vessel. The state ferry system wants to give us a newer one in great condition. Whatcom County says no. Tip tells the tale.

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.

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About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

David Camp

Jun 26, 2016

Excellent article, Tip. And a few tidbits about The Jones Act: it was designed to ensure that intra-US Port shipping was done in US-made, owned, crewed, and maintained (including a limit of foreign steel of 10%) ships. America first! Interesting that well-known patriot John McCain sponsored an amendment to effectively overturn the Jones Act in 20i5. Yet another example of our traitorous ruling class serving foreign interests and not Americans.


Tim Paxton

Jun 27, 2016

Great, detailed article. 

Who meets with the Lummi Nation from Whatcom County anyway?  Sounds like no one has the skill to simply sit down with them once a month.

Maybe the Lummis will have a nice Casino Ferry? One can go to/from Lummi Island, take perhaps 30 minutes to slowly cross and play some the slots and Keno on the way back and forth!


Wynne Lee

Jun 28, 2016

I’ve been involved with LI Ferry issues since 2000, including 6 years as editor of the Lummi Island Ferry Forum (; 640 or so posts). As Ferry Forum editor, I’ve interacted with Tip very positively on several issues and encouraged him to post on the Ferry Forum.

That’s part of why I am distressed by this opinion piece and find myself compelled to encourage readers to read it with considerable caution. Why? Not only does Tip get some very simple facts wrong, but he fails to reference any of the many publicly available documents and resources that would let readers check his claims.

I lack the time to critique the whole piece, documenting why some of Tip’s facts and opinions are justified and why some are highly flawed,, flat out wrong, or suspect.  But I will take the time to describe just one (of the several) factual errors/claims in his article.

In his third paragraph, Tip claims that payments to the Lummi Nation under the April 2012 lease agreement with the County “dramatically raised fares”. The problem is that the County raised fares in 2010, two years earlier. The reason was to start replenishing the Ferry Fund, which had been diminishing dramatically since at least 2007, years before negotiations with the Lummis began. Since causality doesn’t run backwards in time, obviously there’s zero relationship between the 2010 increase in fares and payments to the Lummi Nation. Zip. Nada. Further, payments to the Lummi Nation didn’t decrease in 2015 any yet—the County lowered some ferry fares. Why? The Ferry Fund had been replenished. Once again, ferry fares to date and payments to the Lummi Nation are unrelated. (Current fares are now set partly to maintain the fund over time. The story of how citizens and the County worked to make these changes is an encouraging one, incidentally.)

Trust but verify. When verification fails, as in this case, so should the reader’s trust. There are other incorrect ‘facts’ throughout this article, as well as strongly expressed but totally undocumented (and perhaps unfounded) assertions.

Such flaws will, I hope, alert discerning readers who are unfamiliar with ferry issues to be cautious and not simply accept all of Tip’s ‘facts’ or assertions at face value, no matter how ‘good’ his story. It dismays me to write this, because Tip and I’ve interacted positively many times before and, I hope, will do so in the future.

I agree with Tip’s main point that how the County can (will?) continue to provide reliable transportation and services to its citizens who live in remote areas (Lummi Island but also Point Roberts, parts of east County) is an important and challenging issue. I think it
deserves relentlessly respectful attention to detail and logic by anyone trying to explain it to others, to avoid further muddling and complicating an already difficult situation.

Here are some reliable sources of past and current information re: Whatcom County’s ferry system. Some are county-generated and others are citizen-generated. Links are always on the main sidebar of the Lummi Island Ferry Forum

Whatcom County Ferry site

Whatcom County Ferry Documents Archive

Lummi Island Ferry Advisory Committee: (scroll down to find minutes, email, minutes, agendas, documents etc). All are welcome to attend public meetings: 1st Tuesday of each month, Fire Hall, Lummi Island, 6:30-7:40 PM. Public comment period at the start of every meeting. To subscribe to notices, send your request to

Protect Lummi Island Community


Wynne Lee

Jun 28, 2016

oh well… Here are a few more of my concerns with this article’s many undocumented or inadequately considered claims.

Tim’s Caption claims – justified or not?

The caption under the photo of the Whatcom Chief claims that it’s ‘decrepit’ and ‘expensive to maintain.’

Decrepit? According to who? Publicly available marine engineering reports of the past years, including 2015, don’t support the claim of ‘decrepitude’.

Expensive to maintain?
Maintenance expenses have been pretty stable over at least a half-dozen years despite the Chief (like all of us) continuing to age. This can be seen in the annual 2015 ferry financial report on the county website, with older data available for those truly interested.

Caption under picture of Hiyu, claiming that it would cost ‘virtually nothing’ to acquire. “Virtual Nothing”… wow! FREE! (or something very close, virtually close I guess).  Where did this amazing claim come from?

Consider these facts about ‘virtually no cost’ claim:

a) Last I heard, the price of Hiyu hasn’t been determined yet, as WA Ferry System is still evaluating what equipment would be included and what repurposed within the state ferry system.

b) What about the total estimated times and costs of modifying and outfitting the Hiyu and widening and lengthening the Gooseberry and Lummi Island docks to accommodate the larger vessels? Tim offers nothing about the first, but maybe $7,000,000 for the dock work. Hmmm…. $7,000,000 is’virtually nothing’? Maybe to Tip (or whoever wrote that silly phrase) but not to me.

c) While docks and Hiyu were being modified, taking who-knows-how-long before it could be put into service, the Whatcom Chief would keep on running. So, Whatcom County would have 2 boats on the books. Any boat owner, car owner, homeowner knows that 2 ain’t cheaper than one, even if you aren’t using one at the moment. What about those costs? Are they included in ‘virtually nothing’?

d) Now let’s give a nanosecond or two thought to the dock modifications required to accommodate the Hiyu. By now we all (should) know that the Lummi Nation owns the tidelines and uplands that the county only leases for use of the current dock. That agreement is set to run for 30 or so more years, with an option to renew for another 35. Would anyone like to place a bet that the LN would immediately, without negotiation, agree to the county widening and lengthening the G’bery dock to accommodate the larger Hiyu? Right in the middle of the Lummi fishing fleet operations? Or that the LN would do so at no (or should I say, ‘virtually no’) cost to the County? Personally, I think the County would be flippin’ crazy to acquire the Hiyu (which needs those dock modifications to be used safely) without finding about this first? (Keep in mind that the last dock lease negotiations took about 3 yrs.)  ‘Virtually nothing’ HAH.

e) One other not-so-tiny omitted financial detail re the Hiyu. Nothing to do with acquiring it, but absolutely with increased annual operating expenses. The Hiyu requires 4 crew, not 3 that the Chief or similar size vessel does. Adding another crew member would incur a large increase in annual labor costs. An alternative is apparently to modify the Hiyu hull to (somehow) transform it into a 3-crew vessel. What would those costs be? Any marine engineering time/costs estimates on those, or the payback time in saved labor costs?

There are other flaws in the article, including what appears to be very poorly informed or distorted comments about ‘what islanders’ or ‘some islanders’ (the LI Citizens’ Advisory Committee, LIFAC - which has 2 off-island members, incidentally) think/are trying to do at the request of and working with the County in re-defining LOS more rationally than it is now. Tim’s take is off base. Don’t know who he’s relied on for info, but he should have found some other, independent sources to ask (including LIFAC members). He at least could have LIFAC’s draft LOS doc on the LIFAC county website, or attended a meeting or two himself to learn first hand what’s going on. GIGO is a factor here, I suspect.

I’ve gotta stop. This could go on for hours. It’s just that I’m so sorry (and annoyed) that Tip burdened his main points with so many flawed and undocumented claims. Those strain the credibility of the whole thing.

The article would have been far more useful without its flaws of omission and commission. Making some good points and ideas that are interlaced with highly questionable or incorrect assertions may be effective rhetorical technique and helped him tell a ‘better’ and more persuasive story, but ... well… Is that really enough these days? Not for me.


Tip Johnson

Jun 29, 2016

It is very nice to have Wynne weighing in, but a bit disconcerting that she feels I am plugging the Hiyu.  I am quite fond of the Whatcom Chief, and as a student of boat design, appreciate the grace with which it goes through the water, leaving a larger bow than stern wave.  Nice and slippery.  True, it is not well suited to other landings, but I take the Mackinac Island view that cars are the problem, not the ferry.  Drydock is the most pointed example, when the entire point is clogged with islander’s cars.  I don’t blame Lummi for finding it objectionable.  If all my neighbors parked in my driveway, I’d be irked, too.

Wynne’s first volley takes me to task for not citing a bunch of references and being riddled with errors.  I wasn’t interested in boring everyone to death, just wanted to make a simple point.  The point is that the county’s interest in the ferry seems weaker than the Lummi Nation’s, and that islanders are not of one mind, leaving them at a disadvantage in controlling the “drawbridge”.

Wynne suggests that the Lummi charging $16,666.67 per month for 5000 ft2 of tidelands doesn’t affect fares. I disagree.  If it hasn’t, it will.  It is a major expense unrelated to providing service and can’t help keep the ferry in the black.  Add to that the $6mm in road improvements, in addition to the normal maintenance of about 20 miles of roads in the area, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.  The most interesting piece of this part of the equation is that the rent is paid on land traditionally reserved for navigation, land that the highest courts have repeatedly ruled may be thus used without compensation.  The courts have ruled that it is not a takings in the ordinary sense because the encumbrance in favor of navigation was reserved for the “sovereign” in the original grant.  This is a principal dating back to the beginning of law that has even been adhered to when whole governments change.  The second most interesting piece is that not one elected representative would touch that issue when it came up, meaning islanders cannot hope for any outside help.  If they are going to have any control of the drawbridge that gets islanders to school, hospital, work and back home, they are going to have to do it themselves.

As for some of Wynne’s other objections:

1) Decrepit ferry? I didn’t write the captions and decrepit is not a word I would have chosen.  I did mention that it has an excellent service record.

2) Expensive to maintain?  I have included a graph from the county’s own documentation that shows spiraling costs, a widening gap between fares and costs, and I will suggest that the aging boat will not become less expensive to maintain over time.  This trend even predates the new lease conditions, so the next update could be quite revealing.

3) Free boat?  Well, it is a provision in state surplusing statutes that these assets can be transferred to other governmental subdivisions without fee.  Maybe it wouldn’t be free, but it might be, or close.  Of course nothing is free, but I did bother to cite the dock revision estimates.  That said, it is it is incomprehensible that county would modify the dock to restrict access to only one vessel, and one so old, especially when they rejected organizing their funds to provide for building a new vessel.  That smacks of twisted bureaucratic forethought toward avoiding an acquisition like the Hiyu.

4) Two boats on the books?  I think two boats is a great idea, and the article details a couple reasons why - especially the possibility of getting to the mainland when the Gooseberry Peninsula again becomes an island.  Between the disasters mentioned in the article and the specter of rising sea levels, this is an inevitable eventuality.  However, I don’t think the county is necessarily competent to manage even one, much less two boats.  If I had my druthers, this would be part of the state ferry system and it would also service Orcas Island.  Have you ever tried to get off Orcas?  It can be much worse than the waits on Lummi Island.  Maybe they should be examining their service levels (see #7).

5) A nanosecond’s consideration?  First, the lease is a bogus imposition.  The grounds upon which it was imposed were bogus - that is the lack of a BIA approval signature.  It is a matter of case law that if both parties perform according to their contract terms, it is in fact a contract.  Therefore, the renewal clauses were valid and should have been honored by both.  The Nation chose to abrogate.  Second, as mentioned, Navigational Servitude applies to tribal tidelands as well as any others and the courts have long so upheld.  Therefore the ferry system pays dearly to cross land that was already reserved for it.  Third, the Nation has submitted at least three Tiger grants for a much needed harbor for their fleet at Gooseberry Point.  When this finally comes to pass, will it be reasonable for the Lummi to permanently occupy and obstruct many acres of federal navigable water while charging $16+k per month for 5000 ft2 of tideland under the ferry dock?

6) Higher costs of the Hiyu?  I understand that the crew requirement is arguable because the vessel could be reclassified. I am not an expert on this but am not sure this would require hull modifications.  I think the Hiyu might seem too large for a lot of the winter, but would probably be welcomed by at least some in the high season and, as stated, better able to capturing fares and support island businesses.  I wasn’t trying to do a cost benefit analysis, but rather stimulate a healthy dialog on the issue.

7) The Level Of Service issue?  Wynne thinks I should have referred to the LIFAC?  I believe my comments were based almost exclusively on the minutes from the LIFAC meeting of February 2, 2016, together with my experience with the matter from city planning issues.

8) Flawed, undocumented claims and highly questionable or incorrect assertions?  Well, I appreciate Wynne standing up and making herself heard.  I did intend to get folks questioning this issue, thus questionable may be an appropriate charge.  However, I have so long endured shrill objections to content and rhetorical choices that attack the person and not the issues that I have become inured to them.  I challenge others to bring on their documents, references, or even just wild-ass ideas, because the Lummi Island ferry is not presently and probably will not in the future work strictly in the spirit of mutual public cooperation without islanders seizing this issue for themselves.

I was only poking at it, for fun.

Finally, it is interesting that Wynne did not address the point about car cramming on the ferry and the safety issue it can create.  When folks literally have to risk their lives to come and go, to and from home, the situation is at the very least not ideal.  Perhaps there is some way to do better?  Maybe it’s not the HIyu, but we ought to consider something.  Anything - before there is a tragedy.


John Servais

Jun 29, 2016

Regarding Tip’s 1) item.  As publisher, I added the three photos and wrote the captions. As Tip did not use the word “decrepit” in his article, I should not have used it in the caption. I’ll be more careful going forward. I allowed my opinion and knowledge of the Whatcom Chief to intrude into the caption.

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