Islanders question Keystone project

Close to 250 people submitted comments to Washington State Ferries regarding the agency’s plan to possibly move the Keystone terminal in order to accommodate larger ferries on the run to Port Townsend. Some were in favor of the move, but many were against it.

Many who commented felt the ferry system is putting the cart before the horse, or rather, the boat before the harbor.

Ferry officials decided that the two 75-year-old, 65-car steel-electric ferries on the route had to be replaced with brand new, custom-built 130-car ferries, in order to standardize the fleet.

While economy of scale was the driving factor, the current terminal in Keystone Harbor won’t accommodate the larger boats, so the ferry system launched a process to build a new terminal or enlarge the old one.

Alternate locations being considered are Driftwood Park, where Keystone Avenue makes a sharp left, and a point south of Admirals Cove, which would require punching a road through the Lee farm to the beach.

Plans call for construction of the terminal to begin in July 2005, with delivery of the new vessel coinciding with the terminal’s completion in 2008.

Locals want more options, input

James Bicknell, who owns property just south of Keystone Road, likened the decision to go with bigger boats to an engineering firm telling someone that one of their appendages would need to be cut off, and giving them only the choice between a hand or a foot.

“The engineering consulting firm … has prepared elaborate models showing hands and feet, cutting techniques, the relative amount of pain and blood lost, and the consequences of living without a hand or foot. Then we are consulted to help them choose which we want cut off,” he wrote.

Bicknells’ analogy mimics the ferry system’s presentations of the proposal in Coupeville and Port Townsend in December, complete with detailed visuals and a panoply of ferry system experts.

The ferry system received many comments from residents of Telaker Shores, immediately adjacent to option number two, at the east end of Keystone Spit, at the county-owned Driftwood Park, saying in effect that they didn’t want their community amputated.

Heidi Sweeney wrote that her family, with three small children, chose the beach community as a “safe, peaceful community” where the children could grow up.

“The relocation of the ferry adjacent to our community will completely change that environment, bringing the traffic, noise, lights and environmental pollution we tried so hard to avoid,” she wrote.

Sweeney noted that every resident along Keystone Spit settled there under the assumption the ferry would remain at its current location.

Joan Whittaker, who owns a real estate office in Kirkland, was one of those who bought a cabin on the beach as a retreat and future full-time home.

If the terminal were to be built at Driftwood Park, it would be right next to her retirement home.

“I am absolutely sick to my stomach,” she said Thursday. “It’s incredible that anyone would choose to take the ferry down to an area that is so natural and pristine.”

Whittaker was also concerned with the way the larger ferries were “shoved down our throats.”

“I feel devastated economically and emotionally that this is even a consideration,” she said of the boats and harbor.

Ferry officials at the Dec. 16 meeting in Coupeville told the audience that if bigger boats were put on the Keystone run, traffic would increase. Whittaker wondered if they had considered the impact on Whidbey Island highways, and the Deception Pass bridge.

Speaking for all the residents of the beach community, she said they all encourage the ferry system to dredge the current harbor and keep the boats there.

Many respondents noted that Driftwood Park is one of the best public fishing spots on the island, and that recreational opportunity would be lost if the terminal was relocated there.

Critics have also noted that while ferry officials say the number of cars and passengers, or “throughput” will remain the same on the route, at least for now, the plan is to have a single 130-car ferry running every 90 minutes year round. Miss the ferry, and a long wait is guaranteed.

State Ferries cites cost savings

So why is the ferry system so set on replacing the old boats with new ones?

Celia Schorr, WSF outreach manager, said this course is cheaper and more beneficial to the system as a whole.

Upgrading the current vessels to run another 30 years would have cost $78 million.

“We had to consider, would it make sense to run 100 year old boats?” she said.

“Investing in the Keystone and Port Townsend ferry terminals to accommodate 130-car ferries saves $80.4 million, compared to building special boats capable of operating at existing terminals,” she said.

Ferry system figures put the cost of terminal upgrades at Keystone and Port Townsend at $59.2 million. Four new 130-car ferries are estimated to cost $285.1 million, while building three large ferries and two Keystone-size ones would be $318 million.

The ferry system tacks on $43.9 million in preservation costs and $33.2 million for additional maintenance of a fifth vessel, to come up with the $80.4 million difference.

Ferry officials say the 130-car vessels meet WSF’s strategic goal of investing in vessels that can be used interchangeably throughout the ferry system, and will serve the public for many decades to come. A minimum of three are needed.

Schorr also said they can’t buy ready-made boats, because WSF has very specific requirements based on operational needs.

Sen. Haugen fights proposal

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, heads the state transportation committee, which controls the ferry system’s purse strings. She is dead set against the project, and said she will work to see that the money for it is pulled.

She prefers the option of looking at what kind of boats could replace the old ones without changing the location. She frequently uses the analogy of buying a car that is too big for the garage, then building the garage to fit the car.

She is also concerned about the cost, which she said keeps changing.

“The numbers are all over the board,” she said. “With so many needs in the ferry system, it doesn’t make good sense to put so much into this.”

She also doesn’t like the ferry system’s idea that the route would become an alternate commercial route.

“That is totally unacceptable. We don’t need any more traffic on Highway 20,” she said.

Haugen said she and other legislators will meet with boat builders next week to discuss alternatives to the 130-car ferries.

“Let’s keep what we’ve got and make it work,” she said.

Current not all against WSF

Not everyone was against replacing the quaint ferries, or moving the harbor to Driftwood Park.

“I would hate to see one of those boats split in half and sink, killing all (on board),” Eric Geyer, of Coupeville, wrote during the comment period. “I agree, the old boats have to go.”

Geyer favored the easternmost location, as it would not block views or disturb Crockett Lake, and has better highway access.

Roger Sherman, lifetime Ebey’s Prairie resident, signed a letter as chairman of the Island County Marine Resources Committee endorsing modifying the existing harbor, and building ferries designed for the crossing.

But, he also wrote a letter on his own endorsing a relocation of the terminal.

“The site that makes the most sense is the one that everybody doesn’t want,” he said Thursday. That is the Driftwood Park site, which he said is the preferred site from a skipper’s viewpoint. The shoreline drops off steeply at that point, making groundings much less likely. “I tend to look at it from more of a practical sense,” he said.

He also said the ferry system is under the gun to become self-supporting.

“They have to look at it from a strictly financial standpoint,” he said.

But for some people, keeping the old boats is a sentimental matter.

DuWayne Morgenstern has lived on Whidbey less than two years, but he would like to see the old boats remain, plying the inlet that connects two historic areas.

“The Keystone ferries, with their brass and hardwoods and wonderful old photographs, are a part of this and a special effort should be made to keep it so,” he wrote.

“Why modernize?” he said Thursday. “It’s a huge clash, and for what? Ninety minute waits, more paved parking, potential ruin of the estuary and risk to fishing? There’s a lot of negatives here.”

You can reach News-Times reporter Marcie Miller at or call 675-6611

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