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Passengers reach Keystone on foot

With passenger-only ferry service now running out of Keystone Harbor, islanders are still trying to adjust their plans to travel across Admiralty Inlet.

Commuters disembarked the ferry Snohomish Monday morning and filed onto buses or caught a ride with a friend.

It appears that buses will be the way many people will travel on land when they go between Port Townsend and Keystone in the near future.

Washington State Ferries had to pull the Steel Electric vessels from service last week. Those antiquated vessels are the only car ferries in the fleet capable of maneuvering through Keystone Harbor.

The closure left people scrambling for other options. Some people didn’t make it to work Wednesday while others had the unenviable task of driving around. That trip generally takes four hours to complete.

While others enjoyed their Thanksgiving turkey on Thursday, ferry workers were busy getting the Snohomish ready for service. That job wasn’t finished until Sunday afternoon. It was scheduled for sale on eBay until the emergency situation arose.

Even with service returning, some people are struggling to travel.

Port Townsend resident Ron Little was taking the 8 a.m. ferry so he could make a 12:30 p.m. appointment in Anacortes, which was an appointment he made three weeks ago. He was relying on the Island Transit system to get him there on time, which he didn’t think would be a big problem.

“I think getting over there is the easy part,” Little said. Depending on how long his appointment lasts, he wasn’t sure if he would make it back home Monday and he was prepared to stay overnight in Anacortes.

He was accompanied by his wife, Nancy, who pointed out the ferry system should have been more prepared knowing the deteriorating condition of the Steel Electrics.

“You’d think they’d plan further ahead knowing there’s a crack in the hull,” Nancy Little said.

It turned out that Ron and Nancy ran into an official from Island Transit, who was able to help them with the bus schedule to Anacortes. Frank VanderWerfhorst, Island Transit operations support manager, was at the ferry terminal for each arrival to straighten out any transportation confusion. He was able to help the Littles find the right route to take and figure out how to connect with a Skagit Transit bus going into Anacortes.

The Littles weren’t the only ones taking a long time to travel because the foot ferry required them to leave their car behind.

Port Angeles resident Shanoah Luvaas had to rely on bus transportation to visit her mom, who lives in Burlington. What is normally a trip that takes only a few hours became a daunting journey. She left Sunday, stayed with family in Port Townsend, took the bus to the ferry, and then had relatives pick her up on the Keystone side.

The ferry system decided to pull the four Steel Electrics from service Tuesday evening because work on the Quinault showed significant pitting in the boat’s hull, raising fears that the three remaining Steel Electrics, the Klickitat, Illahee and Nisqually, would have similar problems.

Ferry officials have said that it could be at least until February before one of the Steel Electrics are in good enough condition to be returned to service.

To ensure that some kind of service would be available to Central Whidbey, officials decided to get the Snohomish ready for service. The passenger-only ferry hasn’t been in service since 2003 and the ferry system was preparing to sell the boat on eBay.

The crews that manned Klickitat, which is currently moored at the Port Townsend ferry terminal, are operating the foot ferry. A training captain is overseeing them this week as they familiarize themselves with a different vessel.

One thing is for sure, the trip between the two terminals is now a lot faster. What was a 30-minute trip has been cut in half.

The Snohomish, which was built in 1999, uses four diesel/waterjet engines that produce 7,200 horsepower. The boat cruises across Admiralty Inlet at approximately 25 knots, said Chris Beres, training captain for Washington State Ferries. The vessel is able to carry 250 passengers.

The boat is able to back out of the Keystone terminal and turn around in the harbor so it can speed across the inlet. Keystone Harbor, notorious for being narrow, shallow and wind-swept, is a difficult location for the ferries to navigate. Ferries have run aground several times in the past.

Some people are benefiting from the passenger ferry service: The folks who normally walk on the ferry as part of the normal commute.

Some prefer foot ferry travel

“This passenger ferry is an advantage for me,” said Freeland resident Rob Williams, who works at a care center in Port Townsend. “If I can get there 15 minutes early, that is good.”

Trudy Roush, a physical therapist at Whidbey General Hospital, lives in Port Townsend and has an old car on Whidbey Island to drive from the terminal to town. She said as long as the service keeps running regularly, she shouldn’t have a problem making the commute. She chose to have a car because she had problems with bus service at the terminal.

The frustrating part for her is the poor communication from the ferry system to the community, particularly last Tuesday when the hurried shutdown caught commuters by surprise.

“The hardest thing about this is the communication is goofy,” Roush said. She added that there is talk of changing the sailing times, but, as of Monday morning, she hasn’t heard any concrete information yet.

Martha Rose, executive director for Island Transit, said the agencies have been talking about coordinating the sailing schedule with the bus routes and it looked like the sailing schedule would change beginning Tuesday. She noted that, for the last sailing out of Keystone, there wouldn’t be any available bus service at the terminal as the schedule was initially implemented.

There are buses going to the north and south ends of the island from Keystone.

With more people needing to use buses to get to and from the Keystone terminal, she hopes people will learn the benefits of public transportation.

“We hope people will see that you can leave your car at home and still get around,” Rose said Monday morning.

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