Port of Bellingham votes unanimously to investigate starting Point Roberts ferry

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Thanks to an email sent by local resident and president of the Point Roberts Taxpayers Association Mark Robbins, Port of Bellingham commissioners voted unanimously August 11 to investigate starting a passenger-only ferry service to and from Point Roberts and Blaine. The Whatcom Transportation Authority would need to agree to coordinate round-trip bus service between Blaine and Bellingham.

Within 24 hours of Robbins’ email to port commissioner Bobby Briscoe, the port had contacted San Juan Cruises owner Drew Schmidt about chartering a ferry twice a day, two days per week.

“We’ve been trying to help Point Roberts economically. I wouldn’t say we failed but we haven’t been able to do a lot,” Briscoe said during the meeting. “They’re taxpayers, Whatcom County residents and I feel it’s the Port of Bellingham’s obligation to make something happen here. We need to step up and take the lead role on this.”

A small vessel costs $3,000 per day and a large vessel costs $3,500 per day to run two roundtrips, executive director Rob Fix said during the August 11 meeting.

With a committed attitude, Fix advocated the port “take a leap of faith” and foot the bill for the ferry, doubting the port would receive CARES Act funds to help with the endeavor.

Commissioner Ken Bell suggested Point Roberts residents help pay for ferry trips because it was their choice to move to an isolated location. Briscoe fought back, saying residents haven’t received enough for their taxes.

“They didn’t create this problem, the government did,” Briscoe said, later adding, “Whether they decided to live there or not, that’s not something they should be penalized for.”

Bell then said port commissioners needed to put pressure on the county to help Point Roberts residents.

Not everyone is a fan of the ferry proposal. Point Roberts fire chief Christopher Carleton thinks it’s “a terrible idea.” Carleton has been working tirelessly for weeks to get word of the plight of Point Roberts residents out to anyone who will listen and is finally getting traction with national media and local, state and federal politicians.

“The ferry is not a sustainable solution,” Carleton says. “It’s expensive and it doesn’t solve the problem. What Point Roberts residents need is the ability to transit B.C. from Point Roberts to the rest of Washington state by car and I’m afraid starting up a ferry would be all the excuse that Canada would need to tighten up the border,” he said. Carleton questioned how many passengers a ferry could take given social distancing requirements and how long would the Port be willing to shoulder the expense for so few people.

Apart from the expense, Carleton pointed out the demographics of the Point argue against the ferry idea. “A large proportion of our population is older and low-income so dropping them off somewhere in Bellingham and expecting them to take taxis to their various medical appointments and pharmacies is nonsensical.”

Another factor working against the ferry idea is seasonal weather. Once fall arrives, rain, wind, currents and waves would make travel by boat to and from Blaine a risky proposition at worst and an uncomfortable ride at best. Wave heights off of the marina and the Lily Point reef in late fall and winter are often six feet or higher and, with tide and current interactions, make for confused seas and seasick passengers.

“Having residents transit B.C. from the Point to Blaine and back in vehicles presents no risk to people in B.C. and is the only answer to a bad situation that is getting worse. Point Roberts is prisoner to two governments and a ferry is not the answer,” Carleton said. “We have to keep pressure on both governments until they see reason,” he concluded. “It’s the only viable solution.”

Fix said the chartered vessel would stop if the border was relaxed for Point Roberts residents.

Don Goldberg, director of economic development at the port and member of the Whatcom Unified Command’ Border Task Force, said during the commission meeting that “very senior Canadian immigration” officials will attend the task force’s meeting on Tuesday, August 18 to discuss Point Roberts.

“It does sound like something really quickly is going to happen,” said Goldberg, who mentioned senior officials on both sides of the border had attended the last task force meeting. “Not necessarily for standard border-crossing, but for Point Roberts.”

Goldberg estimates broader changes for Point Roberts residents would happen for the next 2-3 weeks and said the proposed ferry could help residents access the mainland until then.

U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and U.S. representatives Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen sent a letter to Richard Mills Jr., the acting U.S. ambassador to Canada, on August 10 asking for Point Roberts residents to be allowed non-stop travel into the U.S.

“Individuals with drivers’ licenses from Point Roberts or who can prove ownership or lease in Point Roberts could be identified and allowed to transit between their town and the rest of Washington state,” the letter reads. “We urge you to raise this issue with the Canadian government and work to find a solution that protects public health and ensures Point Roberts’ residents can access the rest of the United States.”

All Point Bulletin sent a survey in an August 12 newsletter that will help the port determine ferry-related needs of Point Roberts residents. The survey can also be taken at survey.constantcontact.com/survey/a07eh91dvozkdrlrox2/start.

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