Poor ferry service proves bad for business, islanders aim for help from Olympia

After a difficult summer of ferry travel, the Vashon-Maury Island Chamber of Commerce and a small number of committed islanders are collecting data and crafting their message, planning to reach out to elected officials at the county and state levels about ferry service on the triangle route.

The chamber recently conducted a survey of its members to help determine the impact of ferry service on island businesses, and many indicated they felt the pains of the last summer’s troublesome ferry travel. Chamber Executive Director Jim Marsh said he plans to partner with Kathy Abascal, who is working with a several others to take islanders’ concerns to Olympia.

“What we are afraid of is if it takes two hours to get here or two hours to leave, if it becomes an unpleasant trip, people are not going to come here,” Marsh said. “We want people to realize ferries are a vital part of our economy.”

Earlier this year, Abascal and her sister, Holly Shull Vogel, gathered 1,700 signatures on a petition that called for independent oversight of the ferry system before any service cuts are implemented on the triangle route. Islander Dustin Prestridge has joined the effort. The plan all along has been to seek help from legislators, Abascal said, noting that those involved are still in the planning stages.

“We know we are going to Olympia,” she said. “We are trying to figure out the most effective way to proceed to get the dialogue going.”

She added she will also pursue avenues with King County officials — as King County is Vashon’s local government.

A public meeting on Vashon in September drew approximately 200 islanders, with many speaking out about the effects of the loading changes Washington State Ferries implemented in the summer, but nothing has changed, Abascal said.

“Sincere issues that people from Vashon are raising are not being answered or being considered seriously,” she added. “Both businesses and people who live on Vashon have real concerns.”

She noted that she believes the Triangle Task Force will take up schedule changes soon — as early as next week — and that such changes would mean cuts to Vashon ferry service. If implemented, cuts would be difficult for a number of people, she added, including those who work atypical hours, those needing off-island medical care and businesses that rely on tourists.

“We are going to try to address that,” she said. “We are going to try to get something that is a bit more responsive out of Washington State Ferries.”

Meanwhile, the chamber recently compiled its survey findings. The results provide some understanding of how ferry service affects island businesses, whether a large employer that draws employees from off-island or a small downtown shop that relies on summer tourist business to be profitable.

Marsh said he invited 609 people to complete the survey and received 113 responses. The largest numbers came from retail and professional services, with 21 and 20 responses respectively, followed by 11 each for real estate, food services and health care. More than half said they have been in business 10 years or more.

In all, survey respondents reported that full-time island residents account for 51 percent of their customers, with the remaining 49 percent made up of part-time residents and visitors.

Marsh noted those are significant figures, indicating many of those people could choose not to come to the island.

“Anything that affects 49 percent of your business is a big deal,” he said.

Nearly 80 percent said their customer volume was somewhat impacted, significantly impacted or very significantly impacted by the ferry loading procedures that resulted in long ferry lines this summer.

Nearly 53 percent said long wait times very significantly impacted their customers, while 35 percent also indicated varying levels of customer impact.

Similarly, 50 percent of respondents said the long wait times had a very significant impact on their business operations — deliveries, timeliness, absenteeism and productivity — while less than 8 percent said it had none.

Marsh noted that delayed ferries have far-reaching effects for businesses — larger blocks of time needed for off-island trips, potentially fewer customers or clients and staff that cannot get to work on time. At a place like Vashon Community Care, he added, it is vitally important that people arrive in a timely way.

“It’s not just that someone did not make it home for dinner,” he added.

Several respondents made comments about the challenges they faced this summer:

“Off island employees have a hard time getting to and from work and deliveries are often delayed or cancelled. This is especially problematic for perishable items,” one respondent wrote.

“It increases our labor cost for trucking, and has forced us to change how we plan off-island work trips,” another stated.

“Reliable ferry service is vital to my business as a real estate agent. I need to be able to assure my clients that they will be able to use the ferry system to get to work on time, to seek medical care when needed, and for normal transportation and travel,” that person wrote.

“No matter how spectacular the Vashon community is, or how wonderful my business is, it all comes down to first impressions. The ferry is the first, middle and last impression for us all. How many potential clients never make it to me/my business because the ferry is a bad experience?” one asked.

At Washington State Ferries, spokeswoman Hadley Rodero said the Triangle Task Force is meeting next week and will discuss its next priorities after considering the comments from the Vashon and Southworth meetings earlier this fall. As she has previously, she indicated schedule changes are one of the items on the list the group may address, but she has also said no changes would be made without public comment.

The meeting is set for 4:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, at Fauntleroy Church, 9140 California SW, a short distance from the ferry. The public is welcome, but it will be a working meeting of the group, with limited opportunity for public comment.

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