Some commuters get left on the dock as ferry ridership climbs

As the number of commuters who ride the passenger-only ferry between Vashon and downtown Seattle grows, an increasing number of Islanders have been left behind on the dock.

In October, the county’s catamaran set sail at its full 150-person capacity 18 times, and very likely, people were turned away each of those 18 times, according to Scott Davis, director of King County’s Marine Services Division.

So far this year, he said, 53 sailings have sailed at full capacity.

Because the ferry district only tracks those who board, not those who get turned away, it’s impossible to know for sure if people were left standing on the dock each time the boat was at capacity or exactly how many, but Davis said it’s very likely that every time the boat sails at capacity at least a few passengers — and possibly many more — are unable to board.

Chris Wheeler, who handles special projects for the county’s marine division, said he did get a report on the number of people turned away one day two weeks ago that was particularly busy. On that one day alone, 24 people were unable to board the 4:30 p.m. sailing, and 32 couldn’t get on the 5:30 p.m. boat, he said.

“There were a lot of frustrated people,” said Wheeler, a commuter who was also recently left standing on the dock.

Ridership has steadily increased since the King County Ferry District took over operation of the popular service last fall. Last October, 11,000 passengers sailed between Vashon and downtown Seattle. This October, 14,415 passengers boarded — a 31 percent increase, Davis said. Year-to-date figures also show a significant jump. Ridership is up 42 percent when last year’s first 10 months are compared to this year’s January to October numbers, he added.

At the same time, Davis said, the recent wave of at-capacity sailings is a bit puzzling. For the last several months, passenger counts have been close to 14,000 or above. And so far, August, with 14,569 passengers, sets the monthly record. But October saw more at-capacity sailings; in August, the boat sailed at capacity only nine times.

The passenger-only boat sets sail from Vashon three times in the morning and from Seattle three times in the afternoon. Davis said the recent overflows apparently have something to do with the choices Vashon commuters are making.

“There seems to be a shift in preferences,” he said, noting that the 5:30 p.m. run has been particularly popular.

The Melissa Ann, the ferry district’s catamaran, can actually carry several more riders; its capacity is around 200. But Davis said 150 “happens to be a fairly significant regulatory threshold.” Once the number of riders goes above 150, U.S. Coast Guard rules require more crews and more life-saving equipment. The ferry district would also have to comply with certain post-9/11 security measures, some of which are far-reaching, he said.

“There’s a potential for significant implications,” he said.

Even so, he said, officials are beginning to discuss what to do about all the at-capacity sailings — a happy predicament for a service that has faced some opposition by members of the King County Council.

“Our ridership is up. That’s a very good thing,” Davis said. “A lot of (administrators) would love to have that challenge. On the other hand, we don’t want to leave people on the dock.”

The ferry district, for instance, is considering an economic analysis to see if the costs of increasing the boat’s capacity would be covered by the increased revenue from more riders.

“Based on the spike in the number of (at-capacity) occurrences, it’s starting to drive home that it’s something we have to look at in more detail,” he said.

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