Ferry system awash in security issues

A busload of elected and appointed officials made a stop at the Keystone ferry dock Monday morning during a two-day tour of the state’s ferry system.

State senators, representatives, Department of Transportation officials and members of the state’s Transportation Commission talked and ate lunch at beachside picnic tables as the aging ferry boats picked up and dropped off passengers.

Sen. Jim Horn (R-King) said that the purpose of the field trips is for “policy makers, especially those who don’t live in the area, to get familiar with the ferry system.” He is the chairman of the senate’s Highway and Transportation Committee.

“The ferry system is part of the ‘highways of statewide significance,’” he said.

There were plenty of issues pertaining to the ferry system, and Keystone dock in particular, for the officials to discuss. New federal guidelines about ferry security, eel grass, the proposed Boeing ferry dock, the multi-model dock planned for Mukilteo and a controversial proposal to build a new dock at Keystone dominated the discussions.

No one seemed happy about the new and controversial guidelines for ferry security that were released by the Coast Guard earlier this year. The state has until the end of the year to negotiate with the federal government and come up with a new security plan. As currently written, the guidelines call for security checks at ferry docks similar to the security system at airports.

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano), the ranking member on the Highway and Transportation Committee, called the guidelines “a huge unfunded mandate from the federal government that doesn’t make sense.” She pointed out that the guidelines could have a major, negative effect on tourism and commerce in places like Whidbey Island. Plus, she said many people are concerned about civil liberties being trampled.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “There’s no other way to describe it. I’m as concerned about public safety as anyone ... but this is above and beyond the need.”

Horn agreed. He said “it’s very important that we don’t overreact” to the threat of terrorism on ferries. He pointed out that the ferry system doesn’t currently have the facilities or personnel to do things like check baggage.

Moreover, Transportation Commissioner member Elmira Forner emphasized that ferry routes are considered to be part of the state’s highway system — much like “floating bridges.” And nobody is checking IDs or baggage at bridges.

When it comes to the Keystone ferry dock, the future looks uncertain. State Ferries CEO Mike Thorne said the agency is moving ahead with plans to relocate the ferry landing down the beach in deeper water. The aging steel-electric boats used at the terminal won’t last forever and regular, modern ferries can’t be docked there because of the shallow water. Also, the shallowness leads to cancellations and difficult navigation.

Thorne said State Ferries has set aside funding for the project, which is preliminarily scheduled from 2008. But no final decisions have been made. He said an environmental assessment of the area is underway.

Haugen, however, is skeptical of the proposal, though she said she’s trying to keep an open mind. She’s especially concerned about the idea that a new dock with large ferries could lead to more commercial traffic on Whidbey’s two-lane highways.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see a major truck route going through the island,” she said. Also, she shares the concerns of Whidbey Island environmentalists that the project could have a negative effect on the adjacent Crockett Lake Wildlife Area.

Haugen said the final decision on whether to build a new dock at Keystone should be made by policy makers — the state legislator — instead of employees at State Ferries.

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