State ferries to consider new boat request

The success of South Whidbey’s quest for second 144-car ferry may be determined soon.

The success of South Whidbey’s quest for second 144-car ferry on the Clinton-Mukilteo route may be determined soon.

Leaders from Washington State Ferries are scheduled to meet over the next couple of weeks to discuss where to put the newest ferry, the Suquamish.

There’s no guarantee that a decision could be made and announced as soon as early November.

“There’s going to be movement, that’s my gut,” said Ian Sterling, an agency spokesman.

Sterling repeated earlier remarks that the Clinton-to-Mukilteo route is in a good position for the new ferry and that it’s at the top of a long list.

“Every single route wants the boat,” he said, but lobbying efforts on South Whidbey, and recognized problems on the run, are factors that will play heavily into the decision making process.

“I think you guys have a pretty good shot at it, that’s my personal opinion,” Sterling said.

The Suquamish is the last of four Olympic-class ferries being built by the state.

The $122-million boat is under construction and scheduled for completion in late 2018.

In September, the Clinton Community Council officially requested the vessel be assigned to the Clinton-Mukilteo run and join its sister ship, the Tokitae, also an Olympic-class ferry.

The lobbying effort followed a summer in which residents noted what they believe was one of the worst in memory for long ferry lines.

The Clinton council’s request sparked other lobbying efforts on South Whidbey — two chambers of commerce, the Island Transportation Planning Organization and Langley also put in requests for the boat.

Earlier this month, state Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, announced she requested the Suquamish be assigned to the Clinton run.

Bailey asked that plans for overhead passenger loading at the Clinton terminal be expedited as well and that studies be performed to identify and mitigate any road blocks to the project.

In a recent interview, Bailey said the state Legislature can exert “pressure” on ferry leaders but stressed that continued public advocacy is vital.

“It really is important for everybody to be singing from the same sheet of music,” she said.

Dave Hoogerwerf, the longtime chairman of the Clinton Advisory Committee who helped spearhead efforts to unify South Whidbey in requesting the new ferry, said Sterling’s comments are encouraging, but not surprising.

The Clinton-Mukiteo route shuttles more cars than any other run in the state’s ferry system and serves as a vital transportation link.

“I think the latest catastrophe with the (ferry) Kittitas just proves that,” he said. “Even small changes on our run can make a huge difference in the level of service.”

The Kittitas, a 124-car ferry that serves on the Clinton route with the Tokitae, was pulled earlier this week and relocated to address the loss of two other ferries in the system. The Kittitas was replaced by the Kennewick, a 64-car ferry.

The change resulted in two-hour-plus ferry lines for motorists throughout the week.

Sterling said state Ferries hopes to have the route operating at full capacity again by the end of this weekend.

Mismatched boat sizes is one of the big problems with the run. The arrival of Tokitae brought increased capacity, but at a cost of was delayed sailings; it takes longer to load the boat, and it’s sometimes forced to leave before it’s full.

State Ferries officials are aware of the problem and say the Suquamish is a solution, but that it could also create other headaches.

“You gotta watch what you wish for,” Sterling said.

Two boats that take longer to load could force a schedule change, which would require a large community discussion, he said.

Ferries currently leave on the half hour during peak times.

Increasing the times between sailings would actually reduce capacity on the run and undermine the whole purpose of adding the larger Suquamish to the route, said Hoogerwerf.

“Changing the schedule doesn’t work,” he said.

“It’s counterproductive to what we want to do and that’s move more cars across the Sound.”

The solution is to identify efficiencies on the route, such as speeding up the boats and budgeting for subsequent fuel increases, Hoogerwerf said.