More ferry changes due at Keystone

Sometime early this year, a car ferry will return to the Port Townsend to Keystone ferry route.

When that happens, local officials and local business owners hope several issues are resolved.

Washington State Ferries is planning to lease a vehicle ferry from Pierce County, with service expected to begin sometime in early 2008 although a firm date hasn’t been nailed down yet.

“We understand that the timing couldn’t be worse for this service disruption and we’re doing everything we can do to help until we can resume auto service on this route,” state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said in a news release.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said town officials and several business leaders met with ferry officials recently to address concerns about the return of the car ferry.

The first priority is to see the car ferry return, and then advertising that reliable auto ferry service will be available on the Port Townsend/Keystone route. After that is making sure the system is ready for the busier spring and summer seasons that normally provide a boost to local businesses, Conard said.

Because plans call for only one vessel to serve the route, there are concerns about how it will operate when the route is normally served by two boats. The Pierce County ferry holds about 55 vehicles, about 20 fewer than the Steel Electric class boats removed from service for safety reasons.

Conard said promoting passenger service on the ferry is an important way to deal with having one boat operating during busier times. She pointed out the ferry tapped to bring car service back to Keystone, can also accomodate 250 people.

She said passengers need to be confident there is a reliable connection between the ferry terminal and Coupeville.

Island Transit and the ferry system recently started a holiday shuttle service to transport passengers from Keystone to downtown Coupeville to help encourage more shopping. Few people used the service during its first days, but numbers improved as people learned of the new option.

Unfortunately, as things now stand, the shuttle service is scheduled to end at the end of the January.

But Island Transit is negotiating with the ferry system to continue operating the Keystone to Coupeville shuttle service until the car ferry service returns, said Martha Rose, executive director for Island Transit.

She added there isn’t any talk about having the shuttle service continue after the car ferry service resumes. She pointed out that Island Transit’s Route 6 already goes by the ferry terminal and the service could be tweaked a bit to better coincide with ferry runs.

Car ferry service ended on Central Whidbey Island the day before Thanksgiving. That’s when ferry officials pulled the 80-year-old Steel Electric ferries from service due to pitting that had formed in its hulls. Those antiquated vessels were the only car ferries in the fleet capable of navigating in and out of narrow Keystone Harbor.

The loss of the car ferry left people scrambling to find alternative ways to make the trip across Admiralty Inlet. Some drove a car over to ensure they have transportation on both sides of the route, while regular walk-on commuters enjoyed the faster ride the passenger ferry offered.

On the frigid Friday morning of Dec. 28, people were huddled out at the boat ramp near Keystone ferry ramp. They were heading over to Port Townsend to shop, work or to watch an athletic event.

Freeland resident Pam Newman was bringing her children to Port Townsend to watch her daughter, Lindsey, play in a basketball tournament. She’s a junior at South Whidbey High School.

Without being able to drive onto the ferry, the trip required a bit more planning to make the trip and catch the right bus.

“This year without the ferry, it’s more of a challenge,” Newman said as she waited for the passenger ferry to dock.

The Steel Electrics were permanently pulled in December when the damage to their hulls was deemed too expensive to repair. The governor and legislative leaders are committed to building new ferries that could serve the Port Townsend/Keystone route.

In addition to the Coupeville shuttle service ending, the passenger ferry venturing from Port Townsend to Seattle is also ending. That service will end Jan. 6 and the boat servicing the route, the passenger ferry Snohomish, will return to transporting passengers to and from Keystone. It will replace the privately owned, 49-passenger, Olympas.

The $6.50 voyages between Port Townsend and Seattle appear to have been popular. Petitions are circulating in Port Townsend to show support for making the Seattle route permanent. Ferry officials say it’s too costly.

Conard said Coupeville tried to get the route to include Keystone, but those negotiations weren’t successful.

“We tried, but we just couldn’t get them to budge on that,” Conard said.

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