Preliminary report on reservations in San Juans

This is from Jim Corenman, Chair of the San Juan County Ferry Advisory Committee (FAC). Edited slightly to remove background info on the San Juan routes.

This is a very preliminary report on the WSF reservations rollout for the San Juan Islands…

As I mentioned the real question won’t be answered until fall, however, when we can review the data. The objective is to increase ridership and provide a better experience for riders during busy periods, and we won’t know whether that has been accomplished until we get a chance to study summer traffic data. But the impression so far (day #5) is “so far, so good.”

…The busy season runs from spring through the year-end holidays, with the busiest period from July 4th through Labor Day. In mid-summer the most popular sailings overload four or five days a week, sometimes as many as 300 tickets sold for a 144-car ferry. When boats overload the terminal lots fill, and when the lots fill the traffic stops.

Vehicle traffic on the San Juan routes has also been increasing at a significantly rate, with no additional vessel capacity in sight. Starting with calendar 2000 (end of MVET and the beginning of steep fare hikes) through 2013 (last available full-year data), system vehicle traffic dropped 13% by 2008 and had recovered only slightly by 2013. For the same period the San Juan routes dropped half that and recovered faster, and by 2013 vehicle traffic was back to the 2000 level. What this means is that the boats are busy and getting busier.

This was the context for the conversation with ferries that started over two years ago. WSF asked FAC to help put together a Partnership Group, we both advertised for participants and collaborated on a final list of around 25 members presenting each of the islands plus as many skeptics and different user groups as we could find. There were 18 meetings over the next two years, including top WSF management. The recommendations from the previous efforts– priority given to frequent-travelers with “Premiere Accounts”– was dispensed with at the first meeting, and eventually replaced by a system of staged release of space.

Thirty percent of each sailing is available for reservations two months prior to the start of each schedule (e.g. January 22 for the spring schedule), then the next 30% two weeks prior to the sailing date, and the last 30% two days prior to sailing. The last 10% is held for emergency vehicles, and for drive-ups if space remains. The intent was to provide opportunities for visitors (and residents) who can plan ahead, as well as those with shorter-term plans who would otherwise be shut out of the more convenient sailings.

As an example, reservations for Saturday’s 8am sailing from Friday Harbor filled earlier this week, folks presumably heading to the Seahawks game. Ferries kindly sent a bulletin on Wednesday, advising folks that reservations were currently filled but the last 30% would open at 7am on Thursday. It was only a baby stress-test but worked perfectly, with additional reservations remaining available until Friday AM. Folks that could plan at least a day ahead will be on their first-choice boat, others will have the option to set the clock earlier or go later.

The rollout on Monday went relatively smoothly, there were some hiccups but they were generally fixed quickly. I spent the morning at the FH terminal with the regular staff and two senior folks from WSF to help out and get problems resolved, but most everything on their lists had already been crossed off. There were also senior staff at Orcas and Anacortes for the first part of the week, including the program manager (Brian Churchwell) and the reservations manager with the IT folks on speed-dial. And the hand-held scanners do indeed appear waterproof, it rained steadily all day Monday.

This is only the first five days with moderate traffic, but we also have the 90-car Sealth replacing a 144-car super on some of the busiest runs (including that 8am sailing from FH). So there have been some full boats but feedback from folks who have made and used reservations has generally been positive. Of course there are others who have not tried it and don’t like it, and a few who vow to never ride the ferries again.

There is not much in terms of statistics yet, but ferries reports that over 3,000 customers with reservations traveled in the first four days with a 97 percent show rate (i.e. 3% didn’t travel on their reserved sailing or later that day).

Remaining concerns include whether staffing at Anacortes will be adequate to process tickets and reservations at the rate needed, so far the transaction time is good but folks traveling now are generally seasoned ferry-riders. The real test will when visitors start returning in mid-spring, and when traffic starts getting heavy.

Another concern is how much customer service time will be needed, and whether staffing will be adequate. Again, it is early days but reports so far are positive– the customer service folks are easy to reach, friendly and helpful.

And of course the biggest question is the one I posed first, whether will make use of the less-busy sailings in return for the certainty of getting on that sailing.

And finally, I want to commend WSF for their efforts through this whole process. It didn’t always go smoothly and we often didn’t agree especially in the beginning, that’s expected. What we didn’t expect was the willingness on the part of ferries management to seriously listen to the comments and input from the group, and to recognize issues and shift gears as needed. When things started getting real this past summer the folks involved all turned out for the public outreach events to help get the word out. Islanders often don’t embrace change happily, WSF responded with additional outreach, better web pages and lots of personal interaction. This was not the WSF that we love to complain about.

Respectfully submitted,

Jim Corenman
Chair, San Juan County FAC

And from Kathy Booth, LOpez resident and member of the Reservations Partnership Group:

Thank you, Jim for summarizing the work of the past two years. I agree that there were rough spots, but I was also impressed with the responsiveness of WSF to our concerns.

As to this week’s Lopez experience with Westbound only reservations, I haven’t had any reports of residents using the system. Most people are still banking on not needing them. Hopefully reality will hit them as the busier seasons get closer. I know that I am planning to make a reservation for my February travel plans, and I am encouraging others to do so also. Change is hard for islanders, as Jim commented.



The reservations information page and FAQ’s is here:

The page to make a reservation or check availability is here;

And the current sailing status for Anacortes is here:

The Reservations Partnership page is here, with agendas, materials and notes from all of the meetings:




2 thoughts on “Preliminary report on reservations in San Juans

  1. R.Jones

    We make no reservations for highway travel, bottlenecks and rush hour traffic occur daily.
    First come, first served with a 50% reservation is appropriate, but never a 100% reservation system.


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