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Vashon residents wary of proposed ferry reservation system

Rachel and Fred Miles have struggled for years with the vagaries of running a towing service on a ferry-dependent island. They’ve faced long lines, late boats, even ferries unexpectedly out of service.

Now, they shudder at the thought of what might lie ahead: A reservation system that could require them to call an hour or more in advance of catching a boat to secure themselves a space.

It might work for an executive on a schedule, but not, Rachel Miles noted, for them.

“Our entire life is unplanned,” she said.

The Miles are hardly alone. A recent survey of 1,400 Islanders by the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council’s transportation committee found that nearly 75 percent oppose such a system, even if 50 percent of the boats were open to non-reservation drivers and reservations could be made one to 24 hours in advance.

Rachel Miles didn’t fill out the survey; she didn’t know about it. But her sentiments are likely shared by other Islanders who already find ferry-dependent life complicated and demanding.

“I think it would just add one more thing to the mix,” she said.

While hardly a done deal, a reservation system is gaining currency among ferry officials searching for a way to make the state’s financially ailing ferry system begin to pencil out.

The Legislature earlier this year told the state Department of Transportation, which oversees the ferry system, to study a number of pricing and operational strategies to staunch the flow of red ink. Ferry officials plan to release their recommendations in a week or two, said Ray Deardorf, planning director for Washington State Ferries.

A reservation system, he said, “is one of the things we’re seriously considering.”

But while many of the Islanders who responded to the survey said they don’t like the idea of a reservation system, Vashon residents who work closely on ferry issues said they think it could actually benefit ferry-users. Indeed, a policy paper issued by the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council in an attempt to influence the legislative process initially recommended a reservation system until the survey results showed that Islanders were overwhelmingly opposed to it.

Liz Otis, a retired Boeing executive who played a lead role in crafting the position paper, said she continues to believe a reservation system makes enormous sense for Vashon.

“I think the ability to not get stressed out wondering if you’ll make the ferry ... is actually a real plus,” she said.

The ferry system wouldn’t charge anything extra for reservations, she noted, and it would likely be easy to make a reservation or cancel one, either by phone or online. What’s more, a portion of each boat will be saved for those who don’t have reservations.

People seem to think the boats will become more crowded, but that’s not the case, she added. “There’s not going to be more traffic.”

In fact, Otis said, she thinks a reservation system would be good for tow-truck operators such as the Miles.

“Someone calls you for a tow, and you say, ‘Let me see when I can make a reservation,’” she suggested.

Vickie Mercer, who serves on the community council’s transportation committee, agreed, adding that many Islanders don’t fully understand how a reservation system would work.

“My personal position is that WSF has not done a good job of explaining it,” she said. “It’s not so bad after all, if you understand how it works.”

Ferry officials have begun exploring the idea of a reservation system to address one of the pressing problems they face throughout the region: The long lines of drivers in cars waiting to board. The queues of vehicles sometimes clog traffic, disrupt neighborhoods and overwhelm small commercial districts.

In the past, to address the problem of growing ferry lines, the state has built larger holding docks for cars.

But the system is now facing huge financial shortfalls: Over the next 22 years, if nothing were to change, ferry officials forecast a budget gap of nearly $4 billion in both operating and capital expenses.

As a result, state transportation officials are searching for ways to better use the system’s existing infrastructure while maintaining what they call a “high level of service.” A reservation system, they say, is one way to do that.

“The customer is assured when they can get on and don’t need to waste their time in line,” said Deardorf. “And from a facilities standpoint, you don’t need to build large terminals, and you don’t have long queues.”

A reservation system has been in place in Port Townsend since June, and according to some, it’s worked exceptionally well.

Tim Caldwell, who chairs the Jefferson County Ferry Advisory Committee, said long ferry lines used to clog Port Townsend’s picturesque downtown core while adding nothing to its commercial life. Drivers needed to stay with their cars so they could inch forward with the slow-moving queue, he noted.

Now, he said, people park their cars in a number of parking lots that double as ferry reservation waiting areas and use their wait time to shop or eat.

“It’s worked very well for us,” he said.

But at a meeting last month where Islanders broke into groups and discussed the various strategies the state is considering, several Islanders wondered if the ferry system is up to the seemingly Herculean task of creating such a system, which would require state-of-the-art software and significant upfront costs.

Jon Flora, an Islander who commutes to Tacoma and who attended the meeting, said he left the discussion concerned that state officials haven’t thought through all the complex ramifications of putting a reservation system into place.

“Before this thing can be considered a done deal, they should come up with a business plan,” he said. “It just struck me as a little half-baked.”

What’s more, there are some problems the ferry system is facing that a reservation system wouldn’t fix, he noted.

For the last month, for instance, he and other south-end commuters have been struggling with the 34-car Hiyu, a temporary replacement to the 48-car Rhododendron and a ferry that is simply too small to handle the route’s daily demands, he said.

His one-hour commute, as a result, turned into a two-hour commute.

“I’m not sure what good a reservation system would do,” Flora said.

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