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Second Keystone ferry hopes fade

Unless plans change, single boat service at the Keystone to Port Townsend ferry route may become permanent.

There is language in a draft of the Washington State Ferry System long-range plan to scrap the second vehicle ferry that in recent years had served the route during the busy spring and summer months.

The ferry system’s draft long range plan basically outlines two options for officials to consider. “Plan A” would assume the state would continue its current role as the primary provider of ferry services in the Puget Sound region and maintain the current level of service. However, the ferry system admits it doesn’t have the money in its budget to maintain such service. Plan A has a significant budget shortfall and the ferry system would have to find more money.

“Plan B” reduces the ferry system’s role where it takes responsibility of the core marine highway system while other entities would develop a new marine transit system. The current draft of Plan B currently calls for keeping one vessel on the Keystone route. This plan also has a financial shortfall but it is less severe than Plan A.

“I think that’s the more realistic option,” said State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said Wednesday of Plan B. She is the chair of the Senate Transportation committee. She said the ferry system can’t find enough money to make up the shortfall.

However, she said it’s a high priority to get a second boat to serve the route during the summer months. She noted the route was helped by the reservation system instituted on the route in mid-2008.

The Port Townsend to Keystone route has had limited service since November 2007. That’s when ferry officials pulled the Steel Electric ferries from service due to safety concerns surrounding its hulls. Those four, 80-year-old vessels were the only ones in the ferry system capable of navigating through Keystone Harbor. Since then, a combination of passenger-only service and a small boat leased from Pierce County, the Steilacoom II, has been providing service.

Construction is starting on one Island Home class vessel that will serve Keystone. The Island Home will cost $65 million and is scheduled to be complete in spring 2010.

Starting Monday, passenger-only ferry service will return to the route for the next four weeks while the Steilacoom II undergoes U.S. Coast Guard required maintenance and inspection.

Haugen said there are studies being developed stating the ferry system could benefit from having several more of the Island Home class vessels built instead of larger 144-car ferries. That study, conducted by the Cedar River Group, indicates the ferry system should build three of the Island Home class ferries for use throughout the system. The final draft of the Cedar River Group’s study goes before the Joint Transportation Commission Tuesday in Olympia.

The ferry system’s draft long-range plan outlines the vessels that will be replaced over the next 18 years. Plans call for replacing five vessels over that time span.

Another aspect of the second option could effect Whidbey Island. According to the draft, Plan B would eliminate the extra summer weekend service on the Mukilteo to Clinton route beginning in 2013.

Haugen said it’s going to be difficult to prevent that proposal from becoming a reality. She said the ferry route could also benefit from a reservation system, which could prevent long backups from taking place if motorists know they have a guaranteed spot on a ferry.

She said there will be a number of legislative challenges to resolve in the coming session.

“It’s going to be a challenging session not only for ferries, but for transportation,” Haugen said. In addition to the ferry long-term plans, the policy of requiring ferries to be built in Washington state will also be debated in the coming session.

Have a say

Washington State Ferries is holding public hearings about its draft long-range plan on Monday, Jan. 5, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., at the Pope Marine Building, 100 Madison St., Port Townsend. The meeting, dealing mainly with the Keystone to Port Townsend route, begins with a 30-minute presentation followed by a 90-minute public comment period. Another hearing is set for Tuesday, Jan. 6, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Useless Bay Country Club on South Whidbey, focusing on the Clinton to Mukilteo route.

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