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Ferries come under fire in Coupeville

Whidbey Island residents fired potshots at Washington State Ferries officials at a meeting of the Coupeville Chamber of Commerce Thursday morning.

Business leaders were concerned the ferry system was basing its plans for a permanent replacement ferry on a crisis and not on finding vessels that best meet the Keystone route’s needs.

Ferry officials from Olympia were on hand to respond to the criticism following months of turmoil on the Keystone/Port Townsend route and elsewhere in the troubled system.

“It can’t be based on a crisis,” said chamber member Paula Spina, urging that the ferry system produce a thoughtful management plan and a replacement schedule for the vessels that will eventually start serving the route.

She also questioned the safety of the small, Steilacoom II auto ferry and said the route frequently leaves people stranded on both sides of the run.

Susan Harris-Heuther, customer information manager for the ferry system, said the Legislature mandated the schedule for the route and that causes limitations on the service.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard, who is also a member of the Ferry Partnership Committee, said the group is starting to tackle some of the operational issues affecting the run.

Some in attendance questioned whether the ferry system should look at transportation to the island as a whole after years of the same service: One bridge and two ferry routes.

“Transportation on and off Whidbey Island has pretty much been the same for the past 50 years,” said Gary Fisher. “We didn’t build it, but they came anyway.”

He proposed a bridge connection to Camano Island and leaving the historic Deception Pass bridge alone.

Others asked where the money the Legislature committed several years ago for new ferries went and why it has taken so long for those boats to be built.

That money was to pay for new 144-car ferries. However, that project has been bogged down by litigation and issues surrounding whether the larger boats could be used at Keystone. Plans to enlarge or move the harbor were eventually scrapped.

Conard pointed out that the project to build the replacement vessels to the Steilacoom II takes priority over the larger boats.

Plans call for building at least one vessel based on the Steilacoom II, which is temporarily running from Keystone. However, many people don’t think the Pierce County-owned vessel is a long-term solution. The 50-car boat is prone to cancellations because of severe weather.

“Anybody you could talk to would say that is not the right long-term solution,” Conard said.

With only one boat serving the Keystone to Port Townsend route, Whidbey leaders are concerned about how the route will handle the busy summer tourist season.

In prior, two 75-car vessels served the run during the summer. That won’t happen in 2008 because the Steilacoom II is the only vessel available.

Harris-Huether responded that the system is planning for the summer. Business leaders from both sides of Admiralty Inlet have submitted ideas for mitigating the impacts of reduced service.

On the Central Whidbey side, leaders want to see things ranging from a public awareness campaign informing folks about the car ferry to including Keystone on any future passenger route connecting Port Townsend and Seattle.

Michael Lauver of Whidbey Sea-Tac Shuttle said he is willing provide shuttle service to downtown areas on the island but wants help from the ferry system.

Harris-Huether said the ferry system paid for a shuttle service from the Keystone terminal to downtown Coupeville during the holiday season. The venture cost the ferry system $28 per customer per shuttle. To keep such a service would not be a good use of taxpayer money, she said.

The hour-long question and answer period happened the same day Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill allowing for the construction of three new ferries. One can carry no more than 100 vehicles, assuring there will be a boat for Keystone.

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