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More ferries promised for Keystone

State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen addresses residents during a town hall meeting Saturday afternoon at the Coupeville Recreation Hall. She announced the state will build additional ferries capable of navigating Keystone Harbor. - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen addresses residents during a town hall meeting Saturday afternoon at the Coupeville Recreation Hall. She announced the state will build additional ferries capable of navigating Keystone Harbor.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

When Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen makes a pronouncement on transportation, people listen.

And people in Coupeville listened with glee Saturday when Haugen, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, announced the state will be buying three more Island Home-class ferries capable of navigating the difficult passage in and out of Keystone Harbor.

While the purchase isn’t a done deal, Haugen spoke like it was, and with her Democratic party holding a strong majority in Olympia, listeners took her at her word.

Those ferries, coupled with the one that is currently under construction, would give the ferry system four new boats that are capable of navigating the Port Townsend-to-Keystone route, as well as serving elsewhere in Puget Sound.

“They’re going to be boats that fit in our harbor,” Haugen told a cheering audience of nearly 150 people at the Coupeville Recreation Center.

The news was a welcome relief to local leaders.

“Boy, I’m very happy,” Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard said Monday morning. “That’s exactly what we wanted to see.”

She said she had hoped at least one additional ferry would be built to provide backup and summer service for the Port Townsend/Keystone ferry route.

Haugen said after the meeting that the new ferries will be funded through bonds, not tax increases. There will also be a change to agency goals that will free up some money. Ferry users will have to endure a 2.5 percent fare increase as well.

Haugen said the Senate’s budget will be released at noon today, March 25. The budget then goes to the House.

It looks like the additional ferries will be constructed in Washington state. There had been talk of building ferries elsewhere in the country to save money. However, Haugen has advocated building ferries in Washington, as has been the policy since the early 1980s.

She said the construction of the additional ferries could bring $10 million per boat into the Whidbey Island economy. Freeland-based Nichols Brothers Boat Builders is building the superstructure of the current Island Home and could bid on the additional ferries as well.

“It really does generate some jobs in our community,” Haugen said.

The next two ferries would be scheduled to be built in the next biennium and an additional ferry would be built in the following biennium.

Haugen said the ferry system wanted to move forward with building larger, 144-car ferries but the smaller ones are more cost effective.

The news about the new ferries comes as islanders continue to deal with limited ferry service at Keystone.

Currently the route is being served by the Pierce County-owned Steilacoom II which holds only 50 vehicles. The ferry route is currently prone to cancellations due to severe weather. Most recently, several sailings Friday night were cancelled due to weather.

Haugen also announced that there will be no reservation system on the Mukilteo/Clinton route unless it is a proven success on other routes. That system has been sharply criticized by residents, some of whom were sitting in the front row of Saturday’s town hall wearing signs stating, “More ferries no reservations.”

Haugen said the ferry system will institute a pilot reservation system elsewhere in the system, probably on the Edmonds/Kingston route. To deal with limited service, the Port Townsend/Keystone route has had a reservation system for the last year.

She also announced Saturday that there won’t be any cuts to service, and the Anacortes/Sydney B.C. route, will continue.

Haugen added the ferry system will be given the flexibility of adding a fuel surcharge whenever fuel prices spike.

She said the announcement about the new ferries is the only good news she can offer about the state budget.

“That’s probably the only positive thing I have to tell you,” Haugen said.

State officials are trying to resolve an estimated $9 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. Haugen said the state could lay off 10,000 employees and cut education and prison budgets. But she said she is going to support it.

“I’m going to vote for a budget I hate,” Haugen said.

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