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Feds take back Oak Harbor pier's $200,000

The government giveth, and the government taketh away.

Oak Harbor enjoyed the government’s giving in late December when $200,000 was included in the transportation appropriations bill for the city’s proposed municipal pier and ferry terminal.

Although the bill passed Congress and was signed by the president, the $200,000 disappeared last week when the Federal Highway Administration ruled the funding does not comply with the Ferry Boat Discretionary Program. Due to the noncompliance, the money was deleted from the budget.

A federal analysis of the funding concluded that the money would have to “result in a usable ferry terminal.” The analysis found no such assurance in the Oak Harbor proposal, and concluded that “without a commitment to ferry service, the project would be just another municipal pier.”

To restore the funding, “a firm commitment to ferry service and the ferry boat terminal are needed,” the analysis concluded.

Early this week U.S. Senator Patty Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen reacted to the decision by sending a letter to Norman Mineta, secretary of transportation, asking that the $200,00 be reinstated.

“Members of the Washington State Congressional delegation were largely responsible for the creation of the Ferry Boat Discretional program,” Murray and Larsen wrote. “If your department requires a guarantee of ferry service before funding new ferry facilities . . this program will not be very effective in encouraging new ferry service.”

Murray and Larsen argued that Oak Harbor would used the $200,000 only for ferry-related work, and if not used within three years, the funds could then be withdrawn.

“We encourage you to permit expenditure of this relatively modest sum of money to advance the worthwhile effort of restoring ferry service in Puget Sound,” the letter concludes.

Charla Newman, a Larsen staff member, said the loss of funding caught both Larsen and Murray by surprise. “We didn’t see this coming, I guarantee you that,” she said Monday. “We’ve never had to deal with funding denial after its been approved.”

Oak Harbor’s dream of a municipal dock includes the desire to provide passenger-only ferry service. Mosquito Fleet, a private ferry company, has provided demonstration rides from Oak Harbor to other locations on Whidbey Island and the mainland. But the demonstrations apparently weren’t enough to convince the federal government that service would ultimately be provided.

Krista Blackburn, assistant to Oak Harbor Mayor Patti Cohen, said Friday that the city would like the $200,000 restored, and is lending support to Murray and Larsen in their efforts. “We’re working with them,” Blackburn said, describing the city’s reaction to the lost funding as “obviously disappointed.”

The money would likely have been used for dredging to make the new pier accessible to a ferry, Blackburn said.

The pier is now estimated to cost upwards of $3 million, according to Blackburn. The city is about nine months into a permitting process expected to take two years, and has some $175,000 in regional funding to work with.

Even without the federal money, planning for the pier will proceed, Blackburn said.

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