Hurt by ferries, businesses seek help

Since the Steel Electric ferries were pulled from service in November, it has put a pinch on Whidbey Island businesses by disrupting commutes, preventing trucks from transporting goods across Admiralty Inlet and keeping shoppers from visiting local stores.

Whidbey Island business leaders have been meeting with state officials and local legislators in Olympia to find ways to mitigate impacts the loss of the car ferry has had on the community.

“The loss of the ferry has affected businesses all over the island,” said Sarah Richards, president of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce.

She said business has been down as much as 70 percent in some places and that the impact the ferry change has had on commerce was much more than imagined.

The business leaders have several items they pushed during their recent visit to Olympia.

Richards said they asked for $35,000 in mitigation dollars to help promote Whidbey Island in hopes of increasing the traffic coming into the area. She noted the amount the group is asking for is much smaller than the $560,000 the state spent to provide the shopping ferry over the holiday season between Port Townsend and Seattle.

The group also emphasized the importance of reestablishing Highway 20 as a reliable connection to the Olympic Peninsula. Before car ferry service was suspended, 14 percent of the car ferry traffic was destined for Coupeville and the remaining 86 percent headed to communities along Highway 20.

Mary Sterling of the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association said that traffic resulted in a lot of people visiting Coupeville and its stores and that their loss hurts business.

In addition to hammering home the car ferry’s importance, they also lobbied for better transit service.

The business leaders want the car ferry schedule to better coincide with the Island Transit schedules. There was also talk of having a shuttle go from Coupeville and Keystone that will operate seven days a week. Currently, Island Transit operates six days a week.

The 80-year-old Steel Electrics have been out of service since November because of safety concerns. The route has been served by a passenger ferry since then. Either the state-owned Snohomish or smaller boats operated by Puget Sound Express have been used on the route.

As for how effective the group was in getting help from the Legislature, only time will tell.

“We’re not sure,” Sterling said. “We’ve asked for help and presented our case. It all comes down to timing and economics.”

Business leaders are heading to Port Townsend Tuesday for a ferry partnership meeting to hear plans about the process for bringing the car ferry tapped temporarily serve the route.

Washington State Ferries is leasing a vessel from Pierce County, the Steilacoom II, for the next 16 months. That vessel is scheduled to start service from Keystone sometime in February. Designs for a permanent replacement for the Steel Electrics appear to be based on the Pierce County vessel.

Tenth District Reps. Barbara Bailey and Norma Smith co-sponsored House Bill 3128, which calls for building “one or more new vessels” to serve the Keystone to Port Townsend route, limited in size to 100 vehicles or fewer. The ferries would have to be built in Washington.

Richards said people have serious concerns about the Pierce County vessel’s ability to handle the serious weather that frequently happens on the route. Those concerns leave people hoping the permanent replacement will be similar to the old vessels that have successfully navigated the route for years.

“We hope they choose something closer to the Steel Electrics,” Richards said.

She said people are concerned about only a single ferry operating on the run during the

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