Passenger ferry plans take shape

When the new year arrives, so too will a new boat serving the Keystone ferry route.

The Steilacoom II is heading into drydock for required maintenance, which will prompt the return of passenger-only ferry service to the Central Whidbey Island ferry route.

Ferry officials hope the Steilacoom II will go out of service Dec. 31, but Pierce County, which owns the vessel, is responsible for maintenance and inspections and has to set up drydock time.

Ferry officials were on hand last week for a ferry partnership meeting to outline the maintenance situation to leaders from Whidbey Island and Port Townsend.

While the ferry is required to undergo maintenance, some leaders hope the timing can be pushed back one week.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said delaying the dry-docking would leave a vehicle ferry available over the busy New Year’s holiday weekend. However, no decision has been made as to exactly when the Steilacoom II will be pulled from service.

Hadley Greene, spokesperson for the ferry system, said that the vessel could be out of service for as long as a month as it undergoes maintenance.

With no other car ferries available, officials are working to find a passenger ferry while the Steilacoom II is in the boatyard. When the antiquated Steel Electrics were pulled from service a year ago, the Snohomish was one of the passenger ferries serving Keystone. However, that vessel has since been sold to a transit system in the San Francisco area.

Greene said the ferry system is looking for a private business to provide passenger service. The state has been approached by Puget Sound Express and Victoria Express to fill the ferry void.

Conard said she hopes the passenger vessels will be larger than last year’s smallish Olympas, so they would be more comfortable and less affected by the turbulent winter weather on the ferry route.

One thing is for sure, officials will be changing the location where the passenger ferry docks. Last winter, small passenger ferries would dock in Keystone at the nearby pier operated by the state park. That pier was more exposed to the elements and some passengers felt it wasn’t a sturdy place to land.

“It was just scary for some people,” Greene said.

Instead, a barge eventually will be placed in front of the ferry terminal, allowing passengers to board and disembark at the terminal.

There is another problem that officials have to deal with in the coming months. While the Steilacoom II will be back in service in late January to early February, the lease Washington State Ferries has with Pierce County for the vessel expires in August 2009. Officials have to either find a different boat or work out an extension with Pierce County. However, they’ve been unable to find a suitable and available boat anywhere in the United States and are also looking internationally for an option.

The meeting also touched upon the recently implemented reservation system for the Port Townsend/Keystone route. Conard said the people on both sides of Admiralty Inlet are pleased with the reservation system but they want to tweak the system.

Ideas tossed around during the meeting include changing signs to “reservations recommended.” She added there is talk of placing a price on a reservation. Currently, about 50 percent of the reservations made on the vessel aren’t used and officials are looking for a way to reduce that amount, Conard said.

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