Boats now Keystone priority

A prominent state senator is supporting Washington State Ferries’ plans to replace the antiquated vessels at Keystone Harbor.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said this week that she backs the ferry system’s plan to eventually replace the 80-year-old Steel Electric vessels that serve the Keystone/Port Townsend route with larger ones that could hold as many as 100 cars, but still be able to maneuver into the problematic Keystone Harbor.

“I think that was what they should have done in the first place,” Haugen said, adding that the plan is a better fit for both Central Whidbey Island and Port Townsend.

While she supports the project, there isn’t money available right now for the purchase of new vessels. She said she would work hard to find money, but that Washington State Ferries has to resolve other financial problems. As chair of the Senate Transportation Commission and a senior member of the Democratically dominated Legislature, Haugen has a lot to say about how the state spends its money.

The ferry system received $1 million from the Legislature this spring to study improvements to the Keystone ferry route. That study should take two years.

State ferries had spent millions of dollars in recent years to study options for Keystone Harbor. Those options included expanding the harbor to accommodate larger vessels similar to the ones sailing out of Clinton and even moving the ferry terminal outside of Keystone Harbor.

With the new study going forward ferry officials are scrapping the options that would have placed larger 144-car vessels on the route or move the harbor.

“It’s too bad it’s cost $5 million to find out,” Haugen said.

Residents on both sides of Admiralty Inlet were concerned about the traffic impacts of having larger vessels dump a lot of cars on roads at one time.

“It rapidly became clear that neither community could accommodate larger vessels,” Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said. She, too, was delighted with the system’s latest plans for the route.

Hadley Greene, community relations and public outreach manager for Washington State Ferries, said studies indicated that vessels carrying more than 100 cars would have significant traffic impacts on both communities.

The new plan drew from concerns voiced by local residents along with work done in previous studies.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Legislature to determine what kind of vessels would best serve the Keystone/Port Townsend ferry route.

Keystone Harbor provides a host of problems for the ferries. Sailings are often cancelled due to low tides and thick fog. The four Steel Electric vessels are the only ones in the fleet capable of serving the route. Those vessels, however, need to be replaced.

Washington State Ferries’ route planning process in the next two years includes combining the planning and environmental impact statement for Port Townsend and Keystone terminals. The EIS will develop a policy regarding the size and scale of terminals, visual impacts of larger docks, and the potential for a reservation system for the route, according to a letter recently sent from Washington State Ferries to the mayors of Coupeville and Port Townsend.

The public will be able to comment on the new project when the EIS process begins in winter 2008, Greene said.

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