Ferry report: Port Townsend route responsible for nearly half of tourist spending in Jefferson County

Economic analysis shows importance of ferries on local economy, jobs

Posted 11/19/20

The Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry has an estimated impact of $57 million annually in the Port Townsend/Jefferson County area, according to the latest draft of an economic impact study commissioned …

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Ferry report: Port Townsend route responsible for nearly half of tourist spending in Jefferson County

Economic analysis shows importance of ferries on local economy, jobs

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The Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry has an estimated impact of $57 million annually in the Port Townsend/Jefferson County area, according to the latest draft of an economic impact study commissioned by local officials.

Talk of potential cuts to ferry service between Jefferson County and Whidbey Island in recent months has left county, city and port officials alarmed about impacts to jobs and businesses.

Led by the Port of Port Townsend, local leaders decided to hire consultant E.D. Hovee & Company in October to study the potential loss of the ferry route, and also look at the hit the economy would take if ferry service is reduced to a one-boat operation.

The economic impact analysis examined the shutdown of the Edmonds-Kingston ferry route, as well, which is used by commuters and tourists to Jefferson County.

Eric Hovee of E.D. Hovee & Company presented the third draft of his study to port commissioners last week, and the analysis was also reviewed at a meeting later in the week by the Jefferson County Ferry Advisory Committee.

Ferry routes create local jobs

In the report, Hovee said the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry was responsible for 695 jobs and $30 million in annual labor income in Port Townsend and Jefferson County, according to 2019 figures. That’s in addition to the $57 million per year of spending and other economic output.

The Edmonds-Kingston ferry, the study said, represents an added economic impact of $62 million in annual spending, a total of 955 commuter and local jobs, and $61 million in labor income every year.

The two ferry routes are responsible for 49 percent of tourism spending in Jefferson County, according to the study.

The local tourism economy is estimated to comprise 14 percent of all jobs held by county residents in 2019.

The two ferry routes are distinctly important for other reasons.

The Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry route is vital to Port Townsend’s tourism-based economy, while the Edmonds-Kingston route gives local commuters higher wage job opportunities that are not available in Jefferson County.

Last week’s meetings marked the first public unveiling of the report.

Hovee told port commissioners at last week’s meeting the analysis didn’t set out to explore how many people will continue to commute outside of the county for jobs if ferry service is cut or eliminated, and likewise, the number of tourists that will still come but drive across the Hood Canal or use other ways to get here.

“It’s not necessarily saying that all those jobs or that activity goes away,” Hovee explained.

How many people will drive around or commute a longer distance to work isn’t known.

“There’s really no way to put numbers behind that, at least based on the data we have,” he said.

impacts will vary for riders

Different impacts will be felt by tourists and people commuting to an out-of-county job, Hovee added.

“The tourism impacts are probably more immediate and severe for when that service gets cut off, at least in short term,” he said.

One of the reasons is that employees in some industries may be able to work from home.

Tourism doesn’t have that luxury, and getting there is half the fun.

“One of the key draws, one of the reasons people come to Port Townsend in the first place, is because of the charm of being on the ferry,” Hovee said.

“By comparison, the commute impact, I think, is maybe less in the short term, more in the long term,” he added. “Because people probably make due in the near term. But over time, that long drive-around, or however they’re commuting, say from Bremerton, competing with everybody else on that ferry, takes its toll and people either look for alternative employment in Jefferson County or they move out of Jefferson County.”

What’s more, essential workers won’t be able to stay at home, and must go to their work site to stay employed, Hovee added.

E.D. Hovee & Company was paid $10,000 to complete the study within 45 days.

The tight turnaround was necessary so local officials could have something in hand to stress the importance of ferry service to the Port Townsend-Jefferson County economy before the lawmakers open the 2021 Legislative Session in Olympia come January.

Fears were heightened over the potential loss of local ferry service after the Washington State Department of Transportation started talking about budget cutbacks to bridge a revenue shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

WSF eyes potential budget cuts

Preliminary discussions in WSDOT’s Ferries Division have focused on making more than $63 million in cuts.

Those changes revolve around reductions in service, and alternatives that have been looked at include dropping down to one-boat service on the Port Townsend run and other routes; eliminating late night/early morning sailings; discontinuing service to Sidney, British Columbia; and reducing administrative costs.

A second-tier alternative is the suggestion to eliminate the Port Townsend-Coupeville route entirely, with a second boat being added to the Bainbridge-Seattle or Kingston-Edmonds runs.

Removing the second ferry from the Port Townsend-Coupeville route and eliminating the crew needed for the vessels is expected to save the state $2.7 million, while shutting down the route completely is estimated to cut costs by $13.9 million.

Tom Thiersch, chairman of the Jefferson County Ferry Advisory Committee, said the quick turnaround on getting the study finished limited the scope of the analysis. 

The study didn’t detail in-depth impacts to commercial traffic from local businesses that use the ferry system. If ferry service was halted, or cut to one vessel, some businesses could be severely impacted, he said.

“It would have an impact in their ability to get their commercial traffic across,” Thiersch told his fellow committee members at their Nov. 12 meeting. 

Options for commercial traffic are limited if ferry service is eliminated or reduced, he said.

Thiersch also noted the report mentioned the traffic on the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry route was “severely affected” by the 2007-09 recession and didn’t recover until 2012.

He said the drop in ferry ridership was actually due to the loss of all four of the Steel Electric-class ferries from the route just before Thanksgiving in November 2007 due to safety concerns prompted by corrosion in the vessels’ hulls. Thiersch noted it took roughly four years to restore full service to the route.

Committee members also said the Port Townsend-Coupeville route was important to the Navy, and one noted that sailors became heavy users of a passenger-only ferry service that was started after the Steel Electrics were pulled from service. 

Thiersch also wondered if the study captured the actual amount of tourist traffic to Port Townsend in the summer months, when there’s a big event held almost every weekend.

“That’s got to skew the numbers quite a bit more,” he said.

WIDER LOOK AT FERRIES

What’s also lacking, Thiersch said, was a system-wide study of the economic impact of the ferry system.

That’s never been done, though Washington ferries are often touted as a top tourist attraction in the state.

“It’s really hard to pull the pieces apart and figure out what’s going on,” Thiersch said. “I think we can really do better.”

If ferry service is eliminated to Port Townsend, committee members said that decision wouldn’t be made by state transportation officials.

Thiersch said a ferry route cannot be eliminated unless the state Legislature votes to shut it down.

“I really don’t see them doing that. That’s the only positive takeaway I have on this. One of the few,” he said.

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