Ferry service boosted to U.S. enclave of Point Roberts, which is cut off by Canada

Sep 2, 2020

The Port of Bellingham is increasing temporary ferry service to the isolated enclave of Point Roberts, Washington. That community was largely cut off from the U.S. mainland when Canada and the U.S. closed their land border this spring to nonessential crossings to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Beginning last week, the Port of Bellingham chartered a commercial eco-tour boat to offer once per week passenger-only service connecting Point Roberts to the border town of Blaine. Demand for seats from people marooned on the five square mile peninsula has far outstripped supply, said port executive director Rob Fix.

"We’ve done two sailings now for the past two Tuesdays and they were both full," Fix said in an interview. "We had about 500 inquiries that were interested in those sailings over those two weeks."

Those five hundred people were competing for 40 reserved seats available each week. So now, Fix said the port will sponsor twice per week service using a tour boat that is roughly twice as big. Space is still limited, so reservations are required on the Tuesday and Friday service schedule.

As part of the evolution of the emergency transportation offering, the mainland terminus has also been moved to Bellingham for greater convenience. Point Roberts to Bellingham Cruise Terminal sailings on the 100-foot Salish Express will take about two hours.

Fix said ferry users are using the service to accomplish all kinds of errands from doctor's visits to Costco runs, plus eating out at restaurants.

The port is footing the full cost of the ferry of $3,500 per day by not charging fares. Fix said no decisions have been made for how long to operate the maritime escape route for Point Roberts residents.

"It is not financially feasible to do this long term," Fix said. "It was not in our outlook at all for the year, but we see the need so we're going to fill it."

"The border needs to open back up," he concluded.

Credit Esmy Jimenez / KUOW - Created with Datamapper

The only road connection to the stub of American land attached to the Vancouver suburbs goes through Tsawwassen, Delta and Surrey, British Columbia. In normal times, the 40 minute drive from Point Roberts to the Peace Arch and the rest of Whatcom County entails two border crossing inspections each way. The year-round population of Point Roberts is around 1,100-1,300. The community is sprinkled with many second homes owned by Canadians, some of whom have their own complaints about not being able to drive into the enclave to check on their properties.

Border crossing restrictions went into effect on March 21 and have been extended monthly by mutual agreement between Ottawa and the Trump administration. Truck drivers and "essential" workers in fields like health care and energy are permitted to cross as normal. Opinion polling has shown Canadians strongly favor keeping the border shut down to discretionary travel until at least the end of the year.

The prevalence of COVID-19 infections is far higher in the U.S. than in Canada, although Point Roberts fire chief Christopher Carleton points out that regular testing in the enclave has not produced a single positive test result since the beginning of the pandemic.

Carleton last month raised concerns that the launch of the free ferry service would ease pressure on Canada to give residents of Point Roberts and Canadian property owners an exemption to cross the border by car.

Members of Congress this week again took up the cause of Point Roberts and a similar geographic oddity cut off by the international border in Minnesota called the Northwest Angle. U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), who represents the Whatcom County border region, co-signed a letter renewing the call for a targeted exemption to Canada's Minister of Public Safety, Bill Blair.

"Americans in transit to or from Point Roberts and the NW Angle can enter Canada by car and re-enter the U.S. without stopping or getting out of their vehicle," the letter said. "Individuals who live in or are traveling to Point Roberts and the NW Angle could be identified with drivers’ licenses, leases or ownership documents, for example. There are many options that would allow Americans to access these isolated geographic points without any risk of exposure to Canadian residents."

A spokesman for DelBene said Wednesday that the letter did not draw an immediate response from Blair's office. This week's missive is at least the third letter on the topic from members of Congress. Gov. Jay Inslee and local officials from Northwest Washington have also dispatched pleas for what they consider to be a pretty reasonable request, to no avail so far.