News

Study positive on Keystone terminal move

Building a new, $36 to $62 million ferry terminal on Keystone Spit in Central Whidbey is perfectly feasible, according to a Washington State Ferries study released Sept. 7.

Nevertheless, some Whidbey Island residents are still concerned about the effect a new terminal could have on the environment, wildlife, housing, traffic and fishing.

The purpose of the final “Keystone Ferry Terminal Relocation Feasibility Study” is “to identify a range of potential new sites for a ferry terminal and to determine if there are fatal flaws associated with relocating the terminal outside the existing harbor.”

“It’s very preliminary,” said Celia Schorr, public education and outreach manager for Washington State Ferries. She explained that the department just began an extensive environmental review that will take one to two years to complete.

But even though the project may not be a sure thing, Schorr said the legislature already budgeted $69 million for the project in the 2005-2007 biennium. That includes $53.7 million for a new terminal and $16.2 million for improvements on the Port Townsend side.

The study focuses on two potential areas for the terminals. The “west area” is about 1,800 feet east of the current harbor, just past the underwater park. The “east area” is farther down the beach, in an area where there is housing. The latter area would be less expensive and result in fewer ferry cancellations each year.

Washington State Ferries is interested in moving the terminal to a spot where newer, larger boats will be able to dock. The ferry dock is within a shallow, man-made harbor that must be dredged periodically.

Currently, 76-year-old steel electric boats are used for the Keystone to Port Townsend ferry route because they have a shallow draft , but these old vessels are due to be retired in 10 years. By then, State Ferries officials hope to standardize the fleet with interchangeable boats.

Another problem is that the sailings are cancelled an average of about 95 times a year because of the difficulty of maneuvering in the current harbor during low tides. Moving the dock would reduce the number of cancellations to anywhere from 21 to 46 times a year, depending on the site and orientation of the slip.

State Ferries has held several community meetings, as well as a meeting with other governmental “stakeholders,” during the course of the study. The community and stakeholders brought up many concerns about the proposal. Many people who live in the area were worried about the impact the terminal, increased traffic and parking would have on their quality of life.

Brian Martin, vice president of Whidbey Audobon Society, said the group is very concerned about what will happen to the harbor where the ferries currently dock if the terminal is moved. He said State Ferries’ plan is to abandon the harbor and let it naturalize or silt over.

The problem is that Crockett Lake, an environmentally-important brackish lake just across Highway 20, is fed though a tidegate that may be silted over if the harbor is abandoned. The lake supports an extraordinary numbers of birds, especially during fall migration. That includes tundra swans, snow geese, wood ducks, golden eagles, peregrine falcon, tufted puffins, snowy owls, pileated woodpeckers, cedar waxwing and quail, according to Whidbey Audobon Society.

“We want to make sure,” Martin said, “that the water in Crockett Lake is viable for bird use.”

Martin also said the lack of a floodgate could cause flooding on Highway 20, especially in a storm.

The study states that relocation of the terminal will have no impact on wetland areas, though it doesn’t address Crockett Lake directly. The upcoming environmental review will likely look into the issue more closely

Marianne Edain of Whidbey Environmental Action Network said the group feels that moving the terminal would have a devastating impact on large portions of the spit, which is populated by a diversity of flora, fowl and fauna. The members are also gravely concern about nearby wetlands, which surround the area.

Edain pointed out that a new terminal would need a large area for parking, an issue which is only briefly mentioned in the study.

Edain said State Ferries officials already have their mind made up that the terminal will be moved. “Basically, the studies are justification,” she said. “They aren’t studies.”

Edain complains that State Ferries isn’t interested in any alternatives. One alternative, she said, would be to fill in the harbor and put the dock out into deeper water in the same spot. During a public meetings, a Ferries official said he would definitely look into that alternative, but it isn’t addressed in the study.

The study simply states that other alternatives will be looked at during the environmental assessment.

“I’m not going to just stand by,” Edain said, “and let them destroy the spit and Crockett Lake.”

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano) said she isn’t completely onboard with the idea of relocating the dock. She’s especially concerned about the increase in traffic, including commercial trucks, on Highway 20.

The study’s traffic assessment states that the ferry relocation would about double traffic on Highway 20 in the Keystone area. It would increase the “level of service” of the roadway from “A” to “B”, but the study points out that both A and B are still free-flowing traffic.

A Department of Natural Resources official was also worried about the effect a new terminal would have on fishing in the area. It’s one of the few areas in the island that has good salmon fishing off the beach. Also, there’s a popular boat launch in the harbor that would be affected if it is silted in.

The study states that shore fishing would be affected by a new terminal, especially in the east area, but it suggests that Washington State Ferries could build a fishing pier to make up for the loss of fishing space.

“The proposal presents a lot of opportunities for mitigation,” Schorr said. ‘We want to hear the fishermen’s ideas.”

Yet, again, a more complete answer to these concerns will have to wait until a full-scale environmental review provides a better picture of the effects the proposal would have on the area.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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