ANACORTES — Estimated high demand and rising maintenance costs have Skagit County officials considering replacement of the 35-year-old Guemes Island ferry.
While an in-depth analysis of the ferry service shows immediate replacement is the most costeffective option, some are skeptical of the facts or if millions in funding for a new ferry can even be found.
According to a report by Elliot Bay Design Group, there will be a 24 percent population increase in 23 years. Last year, 42 percent of ferry runs were at capacity. The report suggested a four-car capacity increase.
While the ferry is in fair condition, the report estimates maintenance costs over the next 23 years will be millions more than the cost of operating a new ferry. The existing ferry’s engine housings and foundations are highly corroded. The azimuth drive navigation systems are obsolete and need replacing. Doors, locks and paneling are also worn.
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A long-term major overhaul with an extension for four more cars as well as maintenance would cost $26.7 million while an immediate replacement would cost $19.5 million. The report’s estimates show it could take at least three years until a new ferry gets in the water.
The Guemes Island Ferry Committee is not convinced. Not long after the report was released, its members responded with a letter calling the data into question and contesting the recommendation. It suggested financial and ridership calculations were flawed or vague and accused the report of downplaying the positive condition of the vessel.
According to the committee, the total cost for attending to the current maintenance issues comes to about $929,000 for an extended life of 15 to 18 years. The estimated capital cost for a new vessel is about $8.4 million. The committee appreciated the county’s initiative in looking into replacement but recommended maintaining the ferry.
“It’s like going to a barber and asking if you need a haircut,” said M.J. Andrak of the ferry replacement report. “It is our lifeline; it’s what we have and we are very protective of it.”
She’s been a Guemes Island resident for 15 years and wants the county to continue to research options.
Interim Public Works Director Dan Berentson said there is no emergency to warrant replacing the ferry, and the county hasn’t started saving for a replacement. But Berentson said it is hard to say when funding opportunities will knock so the county should be prepared. He plans to continue to meet with ferry officials and look at options.
“It’s never too early to start planning for replacement,” he said.
Tim Rosenhan spent his career doing large capital improvement planning and owned a diesel boat for 30 years. His family has owned property on the island for decades. He’s followed the ferry issues since he was a kid when the ferry was run by local Croatian fishermen and held only six cars. He believes that getting a new boat is a great idea if funding can be secured, but the real issue is maintenance.
“What they really need is to start budgeting more money for a better fleet management so that it is maintained at a sustainable level,” he said. “The fix-it-when-it’s-broke system costs everybody.”
Rosenhan said that while he believes management of the ferry has improved significantly in recent years, past issues have made many island residents cynical.
The importance of the ferry to residents was highlighted in March when damage to the top of an engine had the boat out of commission for five days, stranding vehicles on the island.