COVID-19 pandemic blamed for 37 percent fall in riders on Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry

Leader news staff
news@ptleader.com
Posted 1/22/21

The number of travelers on Washington State Ferries has dropped to its lowest level in nearly 50 years, the agency announced last week.

Annual ridership plunged by nearly 10 million customers in …

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COVID-19 pandemic blamed for 37 percent fall in riders on Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry

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The number of travelers on Washington State Ferries has dropped to its lowest level in nearly 50 years, the agency announced last week.

Annual ridership plunged by nearly 10 million customers in 2020.

State ferries carried more than 24 million in 2019, and last year’s drop was a decline of 41 percent from the previous year.

The COVID-19 pandemic was the prime reasons for the decline, officials said. The coronavirus crisis prompted stay-at-home orders in Washington, which hammered the tourism industry and left many people working from home.

Ferry ridership in 2020 was WSF’s lowest yearly count since 1975.

Of the nine ferry routes in the system, the Port Townsend-Coupeville route posted the fifth-largest drop in ridership.

The total number of ferry riders traveling between Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the route dropped by 37 percent, according to statistics announced last week by WSF. The number of vehicles carried on the Port Townsend-Coupeville route fell 30 percent.

The hardest hit route was the Anacortes-Friday Harbor-Sidney, British Columbia run. Total riders and vehicles both declined 99 percent due to U.S.-Canada border restrictions prompted by the pandemic. (The route also only operated on the first four days of 2020 before its yearly wintertime suspension.)

On Washington-only routes, the largest year-to-year declines came on ferry routes to Seattle.

On the Seattle-Bremerton run, ridership fell 64 percent. The drop-off was led by a 72 percent decrease in walk-on passengers; vehicles fell 50 percent, which officials said was a system high.

On the Seattle-Bainbridge Island route — which has been the system’s busiest run since 1958 — ridership sank 59 percent. The route also had the largest year-to-year drop in walk-on passengers in the system, falling 74 percent. The number of vehicles carried decreased by 36 percent.

The route that did the fourth-worst was Fauntleroy-Vashon-Southworth; total riders fell 39 percent, while vehicles declined 31 percent.

WSF said ridership on the Anacortes-San Juan Islands route dipped by 30 percent, with vehicles down 21 percent.

Total riders fell by 29 percent, and vehicles declined by 22 percent, on the Edmonds-Kingston route.

Officials said the Mukilteo-Clinton run carried the most customers in the WSF system for the first time despite a 26 percent drop in total riders. The route continued to be the busiest one for drivers in Washington, even with a 19 percent decrease in the number of vehicles carried.

The Point Defiance-Tahlequah route had the smallest year-to-year dip between 2020 and 2019, with total riders falling 22 percent and vehicles dropping 15 percent.

The pandemic-plagued year also brought another first for Washington ferries.

For the first time since WSF began operations in 1951, state ferries carried more vehicles (7.6 million) than passengers (6.4 million) in 2020.

The shift in ridership was fueled by a daunting decline in walk-on customers on routes that serve downtown Seattle. More people decided to drive on board because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When COVID-19 drastically altered ridership patterns, we quickly adjusted service to match this new reality,” said WSF Assistant Secretary Amy Scarton. 

“Since late summer, we’ve been incrementally restoring sailings based on our COVID Response Service Plan, which considers demand, crew availability, vessel availability and funding,” she said.

Ferry ridership has started to rebound in recent months, according to the agency.

Ridership has returned to about 60 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Total vehicles are near 70 percent of 2019 numbers, while walk-ons are around 20 percent of last year.

WSF said ridership is expected to continue to come back as more sailings are restored and the spread of COVID-19 is brought under control.

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Tom Thiersch

The "37 percent fall in riders" information provided by WSF was incomplete and somewhat misleading because it didn't take into account the fact that PT-CV service was limited to only 10 sailings per day instead of the usual 15 from May to October. That 34 percent reduction in available service for that period led to reservations being full much of the time when, if we had had regular service levels, there would have been much more space available.

WSF also cut back the number of sailings on other routes, reportedly due to a lack of available crew and other factors.

Saturday, January 23