Victoria Clipper proposes taking over Anacortes-Sidney ferry route if state pulls out

The company that runs the Victoria Clipper wants to take over a state ferry run to Canada if lawmakers cut it from the budget.

"Vancouver Island is our core market, a market we've served for 34 years," said Clipper Vacations CEO David Gudgel.

His company has its eye on another Vancouver Island route, between Anacortes and Sidney, British Columbia, served for more than six decades by Washington State Ferries.

"We're not looking to compete with the ferries," Gudgel said. "If the ferries decided they needed to stop that route, if they weren't funded for that route, we're looking at being able to step in."

Gov. Jay Inslee's budget calls for retiring one of two ferries certified for international service, the Elwha.

In just the last two years, state officials say they've spent some $27 million repairing the old ferry, and they keep finding problems.

If the state goes through with retiring the Elwha, only the Chelan could make the run to Sidney.

While only one boat serves the international run at a time, having two boats certified for the run provides a backup.

"Maybe it's time, since we're going to mothball the Elwha, that we ought to look at this run and see if it would be better to turn it over to a private company," said Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), the ranking member on the Transportation Committee.

King introduced a bill that would allow a private company to step in if the state cut Sidney service.

The proposal had its first hearing Monday.

King said the seasonal service to Sidney is for tourists, not commuters.

"I think that's a distinct difference and I think that's why this might fit for privatizing," King said.

Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes) said privatization would be a huge move backward.

"We know that privatization often leads to higher costs and lower levels of service," Lovelett said.

The ferry to Sidney also serves the San Juan Islands, which means domestic service could potentially be affected if the international service is cut.

A 1997 proposal to end the Sidney run led to protests, and funding continued.

This year's backdrop is Initiative 976, which limits car tab fees.

If upheld in the courts, it threatens transportation funding.

"I think the conversation needs to be around making sure we have our ferries fully funded," Lovelett said.

Although the Victoria Clipper carries no cars, its German parent company runs car-carrying catamarans all over the world.

Clipper Vacations envisions a 200-foot, 40-car boat that could make the trip between the Anacortes area and Sidney in one hour 45 minutes, nearly half the time of the state ferry.

Asked if the Clipper would commit to year-round service, Gudgel replied, "We have to look at the business model and I can't commit to that at this time but that would be our intent."

Gudgel said if the state approved, the company could start service in as little as a year and a half.