Sound Off: Ferry system shorts Whidbey

By Sarah Richards

Recent news stories about the crisis on the Keystone to Port Townsend ferry run have focused on how the removal of the Steel Electric car ferry has affected Port Townsend. To try to make up for the economic losses suffered by businesses in that community, state transportation and ferries officials gave Port Townsend its very own “shopping ferry” to bring holiday shoppers directly from Seattle.

But what hasn’t been covered is the fact that, in order to provide that special shopping ferry, Washington State Ferries removed the high-speed passenger ferry from the Keystone route, replacing it with a private whale-watching tour boat. Clearly, WSF officials put little thought or planning into whether that private ferry would work. It has been plagued by unexpected cancellations due to low tides and travelers have repeatedly been left behind because the small boat was full. In addition, the floating dock used by the boat on the Keystone side has been an accident waiting to happen as passengers struggle to keep from falling into the water as the floats bob and rock on the waves. Until last week, there wasn’t even a handrail for safety.

The economies of both Whidbey Island and Port Townsend have been harmed by the Keystone route’s reputation as an unreliable transportation link. Over the past year, repeated cancellations due to mechanical problems, safety concerns, vessel inspections and crew shortages have reinforced that bad reputation. The recent decision by WSF officials to further reduce the quality and reliability of the route made things even worse.

All kinds of businesses on Whidbey Island have been feeling the loss of traffic on the route, but the ones that depend on tourism — restaurants, shops, gas stations, hotels and bed and breakfasts, for example — have suffered most directly.

In 2006, the Keystone ferry carried 369,361 vehicles and 397,212 passengers. While the final numbers for 2007 have not yet been tallied, it’s clear that traffic has dropped significantly. As president of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce, I have been fielding a growing number of calls and emails from business owners who are worried about the situation. They are wondering why the state is focused on addressing the ferry-related economic difficulties faced by Port Townsend, but seems to be doing nothing to help shore up the Whidbey Island economy.

The state is spending upwards of $14,000 per day over a six-week period to provide Port Townsend with a special shopping ferry. And it was a Port Townsend company that got the $5,000 a day contract to provide temporary ferry service. But when Whidbey Island business owners requested that the Snohomish stop at Keystone during its roundtrips between Seattle and Port Townsend, the answer was “no.”

Now, WSF is charging ahead with plans to build new car ferries. Despite WSF’s projections of continued growth in traffic on the Keystone route, the vessels proposed have less capacity than the retired Steel Electrics. Of even greater concern is the fact that the car deck of the proposed vessel is lower and closer to the water than those of the Steel Electrics, which is not appropriate for the rough waters typical of the Admiralty Inlet crossing. With less freeboard, the vessels may be unsafe at times when the waves are big. Just last winter, a big wave hit the Steel Electric vessel Klickitat, damaging several cars that floated into and on top of each other. With even less freeboard, these new vessels will put people’s vehicles at even greater risk of being damaged by the big waves common on that crossing, and the Keystone route will likely see more frequent weather-related cancellations. All this adds to the route’s reputation as an unreliable transportation link.

I have to wonder whether the WSF and DOT officials making these decisions have ever even visited the Keystone route in person, making the crossing as a typical passenger rather than as a red-carpet official. They regularly visit and communicate with Port Townsend and Jefferson County officials and business people. But despite the fact that this ferry crisis seriously and equally affects Whidbey Island, they didn’t talk to anyone here before deciding to take the more reliable Snohomish off the route. I can tell you one thing: If they had asked us, “Would it be okay with you if we remove the state’s comfortable and reliable passenger ferry, give it to Port Townsend as a dedicated shopping ferry, and give you a tiny, unreliable and stuffy toy boat instead,” our answer would clearly have been “no.”

On behalf of the residents and business owners of Whidbey Island, I’d like to remind the people making decisions about the Keystone run that there are two communities directly affected by what happens there, and only one of them is Port Townsend.

As our elected representatives head into the 2008 legislative session and begin considering how best to address the Keystone ferry crisis, I would like to urge them not to opt for a solution that benefits one community at the expense of another, and not to go for a short-term fix that will result in more problems in the not-too-distant future. They must take into consideration the long-term benefit of both Whidbey Island and Port Townsend, as well as the entire region served by State Route 20.

Sarah Richards owns Lavender Wind Farm and is president of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce.

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