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Skagit Station in Mount Vernon, by Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”)

The ongoing trials of Island Transit discussed here on Seattle Transit Blog (particularly in the Page 2 section) remind me of some of my adventures in dealing with transit in northwest Washington.

Certainly, there are problems at Island Transit. However, there are also things that they are doing right, and one of those things they are (or, at least were) doing right are timed transfers in locations where it is possible for them to do so.

These timed transfers don’t just impact residents of Island County, but a few other areas as well, and that includes residents of Anacortes and the San Juan Islands – as we shall see with my several efforts at visiting the San Juan Islands by transit in 2013.

Why try this trip on transit?

Portland to Anacortes is an awful lot of driving miles and wasted time, plus gasoline money. Plus, the wait in the ferry queues and expense of paying for a car trip make no sense to me if transit is available. Then, there are the traffic jams in Portland and Seattle and all possible intermediate locations.

As I wrote on September 17th, my first experience with Island Transit (Port Townsend to Seattle via Whidbey Island) wasn’t especially great. The timed transfer from IT#1 to the ferry at Mukilteo worked really well, but the rather absurd scheduling at the Keystone / Coupville / Fort Casey State Park end of the ferry from Port Townsend didn’t leave me with too much hope for some of the other transfer areas.

I was talking this over with someone who is a big San Juan Islands fan, and my hesitations with trying the timed transfers between Mount Vernon and Anacortes. “Oh, that’s a guaranteed connection between Skagit Transit and Island Transit. They have an agreement because it is so important for all three counties*.”

* By all three counties he meant Island, Skagit and San Juan as the Island Transit connector was important for Anacortes as well as being part of the San Juan Islands link to the outside world.

Getting to the Islands

Getting from Seattle to the San Juan Islands by transit isn’t too difficult, as there are multiple options. The cheapest is a chain of I-5 express buses to Mount Vernon and local connections to Anacortes using the timed transfers provided by Island Transit and Skagit Transit. If you do this with the first possible trip of the day and everything goes well this takes a bit over 3 hours between downtown Seattle and the Anacortes ferry terminal. Later trips are closer to 3 hours 20 minutes. If you time your arrival well you might spend a bit more time on transit compared to driving but you might spend less time at the ferry terminal as you don’t have to wait in the vehicle queue.

From Portland the options are a bit more limited.

My first thought was to leave Portland on train 516. After all, it is a through train from Portland to Mount Vernon. I might wind up spending the night in Anacortes or somewhere before the ferry departure, but that was OK because it would be cheaper than spending a night in the San Juans anyway and I could then head over first thing in the morning. Besides, I could use Amtrak Guest Rewards points to reduce the effective cost of the ticket by making it only one train ticket.

No such luck. On the 2013 timetable Train 516 got to Mount Vernon at 8:30 pm, and (if I remember right) the last local bus going anywhere left the station at 8:15 pm. This would still work, if there were actually places to overnight near the station, but sadly the hotels are all a bit over a mile to the north of Mount Vernon Station. The only thing close to the Mount Vernon Station providing overnight accommodation is the county jail.

Besides, none of the hotels were offering rates cheaper than what I was able to find in Friday Harbor anyway, most likely due to Interstate 5 traffic.

The Island Airporter van service leaves SeaTac at noon. It would have added about $40 to the cost of getting to Friday Harbor, but even had I wanted to use that there was no way to do so. On the 2013 timetables it was an hour to get from Tukwila Amtrak to SeaTac using various transit routes, and the 594 express bus from Tacoma to SeaTac left before Amtrak got there.

So, my next option would be Train 500 with the cross ticketed Thruway bus connection at Seattle, getting to Mount Vernon a bit before 2 in the afternoon.

Everything worked pretty much as advertised on the timetables. On the old timetable, only 20 minutes were allowed between train 500 and its connecting northbound bus, but it worked. It was interesting to be on a bus that size attempting to extract itself from the King Street Station dead-end street, but the driver did eventually do it successfully. Arrival was slightly later than scheduled at Mount Vernon. It was a cross platform transfer to Island Transit route 411W to Oak Harbor, and a very well organized timed transfer at March’s Point between Island Transit 411W (at the time providing Mount Vernon to Oak Harbor service) and Skagit Transit 410 to get to Anacortes, arriving at the ferry terminal a bit before 3 in the afternoon.

How are you supposed to extract THIS from a narrow dead-end street? It just takes a while and a few near-collisions with stray taxis, by Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”).

While I am not certain this is a true “guaranteed transfer,” keep in mind this trip was made just days after the 2013 I-5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River. Thus, there was heavy traffic in unusual places all along the 411W route out of Mount Vernon, but the driver called ahead to Skagit Transit 410 and made sure that they knew there were a number of passengers for Anacortes. The 411W to 410 transfer took all of about 30 seconds between 411W arriving and both buses leaving March’s Point, though the 410 took a little longer to depart due to passengers having to pay a fare on Skagit Transit. It’s probably about as close to a guaranteed transfer as can be made by a public transit agency. Even with the 2013 bridge collapse and all the extra traffic in unusual places, Island Transit and Skagit Transit were still able to organize things for a timed transfer, every hour, for at least a fair portion of the day.

The result? 2.5 hours between Seattle and the Anacortes Ferry wasn’t bad at all, considering that some people spend nearly that time just sitting in the ferry queue with their cars.

The fact that the next ferry to Friday Harbor would leave two hours later? That obviously wasn’t the best.

It would have worked out reasonably well had I been going to Orcas Island though.

At least I didn’t have a car waiting in that mess, by Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”).

Sadly, unlike the Clinton ferry terminal, transit users are somewhat second class citizens at Anacortes. The bus stop is not terribly far from the ferry terminal itself, but the walkway consists of painted lines on the pavement rather than a raised sidewalk deterrent for errant drivers. There is also a busy driveway to a parking lot that must be crossed. There is at least a bus shelter. It is very unlike the situation at Clinton, where Island Transit #1 essentially drops its passengers in the walk-on ferry passenger staging area.

The painted pedestrian route from Skagit Transit 410 to the ferry terminal in Anacortes is a short slog through a ferry parking lot. I’m standing inside the bus shelter and a route 410 bus is making a loop to get to it. The painted pathway to the ferry terminal is in the process of being crossed by the front end of the bus. Part of the ferry pier is visible at the very far left. by Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”)

One thing I wasn’t expecting was the complete void of much of anything at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal. There is one small snack bar in the ferry terminal that is badly overpriced, and some of the restaurants near the terminal are not only closed but overgrown. I had checked the Google map to see if there was anything around there beforehand, but it turns out it was outdated. A small coffee stand has been converted to a fortune teller’s office, and most likely survives on the boredom of those waiting in the ferry queue. On a subsequent trip, I got a Skagit Transit transfer on the 410 (transfers are not automatically issued, but must be requested) and simply had a meal in Anacortes and continued to the ferry terminal on the next 410 an hour later since the next ferry wasn’t going to leave for a while anyway.

“Voted Best Chef 5 Years” wasn’t good enough to keep this place as a dinner option at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, by Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”).

The Amtrak Thruway bus cost a bit less than $13 (with AAA discount), Island Transit charged no fare to get to March’s Point, and Skagit Transit charged $1 to get from March’s Point to Anacortes.

Doing This Trip Today:

Today, things have changed a bit:

  • Amtrak has a longer scheduled time from Portland to Seattle over 2012 and 2013 – but the track work is supposed to make things better soon.
  • The Amtrak thruway bus leaves Seattle at 12:40pm rather than 12:20 pm due to the longer time for train 500 to get from Portland to Seattle under current circumstances.
  • This would really be obnoxious if this meant the loss of the timed transfer at Mount Vernon between the Amtrak Thruway bus and a bus to March’s Point. However, the fact is cutbacks at Island Transit have made this connection a lost cause anyway. As it was important to multiple counties the 411W from March’s Point to Mount Vernon was funded by a state grant, which is now gone. Instead this route has been cut back to an Oak Harbor to March’s Point route. The 411W segment that ran from Mount Vernon to March’s Point has been replaced by Skagit Transit 40X, which has a break in service from 10:30 am to 3:15 pm. Hourly timed transfers still work all day at March’s Point if you are going from Oak Harbor to Anacortes or vice-versa, but mid-day the only options for a link to Mount Vernon is a more roundabout set of routes that only occasionally work well – which don’t coincide with the arrival of the Amtrak Thurway bus from Seattle. So, with the lack of that connection you can no longer do this entire trip in 2.5 hours by transit – but since that trip didn’t really work with the ferry schedule (at least in the summer of 2013) this probably isn’t a big loss.
  • Google maps has been updated and now accurately reflects the situation of the restaurant closures near the Anacortes ferry terminal.

Today the northbound  Thruway bus from Seattle is scheduled to get to Mount Vernon at 2:05 pm. However, you have a bit of a wait there due to the Mount Vernon to March’s Point bus no longer operating all day. The next departure going west is at 3:15 pm. If it were me I would probably just find somewhere to have a late lunch in Mount Vernon before heading to Anacortes and the ferry, where you then have a half hour wait if headed for Friday Harbor (or, an hour after that for the next series of departures if headed to Orcas).

Even so, it isn’t a particularly terrible set of connections if your alternative is sitting in your car in the ferry queue for several hours, and includes driving through Seattle and dealing with traffic at the Columbia River bridges. An hour or two in Mount Vernon probably isn’t the end of the world, though I have yet to have the opportunity to try it in 2014.  Pretty much everything I used in 2013 had timed or very tight transfers at Mount Vernon so I never explored the town. They have a short trail along the Skagit River and there are a few other features that might create a worthwhile use of an hour or two there.

Skagit Transit and Island Transit apparently still cooperate for a timed transfer at March’s Point, even if the mid-day service to Mount Vernon is gone and the only connection is to Oak Harbor. When the 40x is operating it still takes a bit under an hour to get from Mount Vernon to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, but only about 5 minutes of that is waiting to transfer between the bus routes due to the well planned timed transfer point and schedules.

Transit on the Islands

San Juan Transit operates a tourist-season only service connecting Friday Harbor with significant tourist destinations around San Juan Island. At $5 per trip, $10 per round trip, and $15 per day ticket it’s a higher price than a transit system with significant public investment, but it is less expensive than renting a car on the islands. At $23 ferry vehicle fee for going to Friday Harbor (the listed $36 price includes the driver) plus gas driving to Anacortes from Portland, using the bus service there can still be cost-effective over bringing your own vehicle.

Returning to Portland

The return trip to Portland for this trip will be covered in part 2.

Timed Transfer Impact

It impressed me quite a lot that Skagit Transit and Island Transit had obviously planned far in advance the placement of March’s Point as a transit center. Passengers going from Oak Harbor to Anacortes and Mount Vernon to Anacortes (and the San Juan Islands included with Anacortes) were able to transfer between four different directions with a very well timed connection, with the flexibility of doing so every hour, and Skagit Transit only had to operate one bus on route 410 to operate it as an hourly service and connect to the primary east-west service.

For a fairly rural area, the ridership on these routes seemed reasonably decent, with the 411W being quite full in the middle of the day. I attribute a fair portion of that ridership to the timed transfers and thus higher overall speed than a system with vastly less well thought out transfers.

Despite all their other problems, Island Transit and Skagit Transit were able to plan a well connected service in some key areas. The location of the March’s Point transit center seems to be very intentional, so that Skagit Transit could provide hourly service on their 410 with only a single bus, while still providing timed connections to Island Transit’s primary east-west bus route 411W, which provided a timed link vital to both Oak Harbor and Anacortes. Services operating in other areas could certainly learn a bit from what they have done with these timed transfers due to the positive impact on overall transit time.

Glenn Laubaugh (“Glenn in Portland”) is a native of Portland and is employed there as an engineer / technical writer / technician at a small company that manufactures electrical equipment for railroad passenger cars.

4 Replies to “To The San Juan Islands by Transit, Part 1: A First Attempt, Portland Going North”

  1. Very interesting. It’s good to know that Island Transit and Skagit Transit grasp the importance of timed transfers, and I would like to see ST/Metro/CT/etc. use them more often. Of course, in more urban settings, congestion might be even worse, and it would be unreasonable to hold a connecting bus for too long just to allow a few people to transfer. Nevertheless, as you showed, timed transfers can still work even despite some level of congestion/unreliability.

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to move towards an “Integrated timed transfer” system in western Washington. While it is not easy to implement fully, such a network would allow for seamless intercity connections throughout the region. For example, I agree that many people would like to take transit from Seattle to Anacortes to avoid the ridiculous ferry lines, but the transfers sometimes aren’t coordinated (or advertised) well. Fixing this could go a long way in encouraging people to use transit.

    1. Thanks.

      In the case of the 410 and 411W, the ridership would be vastly less if those transfers didn’t work.

      Congestion is certainly possible, but if no attempt for a timed transfer is made, then what? Go to the model used by Community Transit on the 113, which in certain timetables in some years seems designed for maximum frustration? (See the Sept 17th article, linked to from this one.)

      Congestion sometimes happens in Europe too.

      If the congestion is so frequent that the timetable is almost never met, it’s time for a new timetable.

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