Port of Bellingham Difference-Makers Innovate Solution to COVID-19 Transportation Challenge
Point Roberts Citizens Become Stranded During COVID-19
Bellingham is 31.5 nautical miles from the community of Point Roberts, Washington, a pene-exclave of the United States on the southernmost tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula, just south of Vancouver. Its approximate 1,000 residents can reach Bellingham by land by crossing north into Canada through a border checkpoint at the northern end of town, then driving southeast about 25 miles to cross back into the U.S. through another checkpoint near Blaine, Washington. Typically, residents enjoy free travel through Canada to reach Whatcom County to obtain routine services, sometimes making the trip several times per day.
All that changed during the COVID-19 crisis.
When the U.S. and Canada closed their borders to one another for non-essential travel to help mitigate virus spread, the citizens of Point Roberts were left stranded and without an easy way to travel back into the mainland United States to obtain the routine services they needed daily. Citizens traveling into Canada are required to follow 14-day quarantine protocols, making doctor’s appointments and other important services logistically complex and burdensome people living in Point Roberts.
“Our mission at the Port of Bellingham is to meet the transportation needs of our county,” said Michael Hogan, Port of Bellingham Public Affairs Administrator. “When the U.S./Canada border was closed to non-essential travel in March 2020, we realized the difficult situation facing Point Roberts residents. With the land border effectively closed, our Port Commission directed staff to set up emergency ferry service to take residents between Point Roberts and the mainland United States to obtain essential services.”
Leveraging the CivicEngage® Activities Feature
For Hogan and his fellow Port of Bellingham leaders, they rapidly needed to work through the offering’s logistics once they received approval to set up the ferry service. Such details included how often the ferry would run, how many people could be on each ride while maintaining adequate social distance, what citizens could and could not transport on the boat, and of course, how residents could schedule a reservation.
Port staff began taking reservations by email and phone, tracking reservations using an Excel spreadsheet. Not surprisingly, the demand among citizens who had been cut off from the mainland for months was at first overwhelming, with over 500 citizens requesting ferry reservations in the first week. The high demand created huge logistical challenges for the Port’s administrative team.
According to Tiffany DeSimone, Port of Bellingham Community Outreach Supervisor, the manual reservation process soon became too burdensome to be feasible long-term, leaving her searching for a technological solution. She began by researching off-the-shelf reservation systems.
“I looked at three different systems used for transportation services,” said DeSimone, “but they all generally required long implementation periods, and we needed to get a system in place in a matter of days. We talked to our client success manager and trainer at CivicPlus to ask if we already had access to a feature that could help with our ferry scheduling. They recommended the Activities feature, which, it turned out, was exactly what we needed.”
DeSimone explained to her CivicPlus team that they needed a reservation system that could support such details as allowing citizens to schedule multiple leg trips and cap the number of passengers. Not only was CivicPlus able to address these specifications, but the team set up the ferry reservation system quickly and trained DeSimone and her staff so that they could begin using the tool right away.
“CivicPlus helped us get the system set up in one day,” said DeSimone. “It helped that we were already familiar with the CivicEngage software.”
Reaction and Appreciation
The citizens in Point Roberts are overwhelmingly grateful to the Port of Bellingham staff for prioritizing their needs and eliminating barriers to their ability to stay connected during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Today, citizens can find the link to book a ferry ride directly from the homepage of the Port of Bellingham’s CivicEngage website. For the Port’s staff, the online reservation system enables them to service their citizens without adding detrimentally time-consuming tasks to their days.
Hogan and DeSimone predict that such online services as the Point Roberts Ferry reservation system will continue to become the expectation in the months and years to come as citizens continue adapting to the rapid escalation of online service offerings.
“Online services such as Amazon and Zoom are total game changers,” said Hogan. “We know that people are on their computers more than ever before. It’s why another project we are focusing on is installing rural broadband to allow citizens living in areas without internet access to work from home and their children to learn online.”
It is one more way that the Port of Bellingham is reaching out to its citizens to keep them feeling connected and supported.
“Setting up the ferry system and reservation process was a scramble,” said DeSimone. “We’re grateful that we can use our existing CivicPlus system to meet our needs without having to implement something new that may or may not have integrated with our website. We’re also grateful for the help and support of our technical support and service teams.”
To see the Activity feature, and all the other time-saving components of our CivicEngage content management system, begin a self-guided demo.