Clinton: Gateway to South Whidbey: More walk-on visitors wanted

Ben Watanabe / The Record Walk-on passengers disembark the ferry in Mukilteo Tuesday morning. Langley officials are hoping to partner with the Port of South Whidbey in a project that could help increase foot traffic on the boat, leading to greater economic development for Whidbey Island.   - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Ben Watanabe / The Record Walk-on passengers disembark the ferry in Mukilteo Tuesday morning. Langley officials are hoping to partner with the Port of South Whidbey in a project that could help increase foot traffic on the boat, leading to greater economic development for Whidbey Island.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

With an eye on economic development, Langley hopes to team up with the Port of South Whidbey in an effort to increase foot traffic on the Clinton-to-Mukilteo ferry route.

On Monday, the Langley City Council unanimously green-lighted Mayor Larry Kwarsick’s request to partner with the port in the pursuit of a state grant to fund a multi-million dollar, 65-car park and ride in Mukilteo.

It would also fund a one-year pilot program for Sunday bus service between the city and the Clinton ferry dock.

The idea is relatively simple: increase the transportation possibilities for commuters and visitors alike to bolster the island’s economy. Having a place to park in Mukilteo would open up more viable off-island employment opportunities for residents and tourism on South Whidbey, especially in the Village by the Sea, which may increase as a result of regular Sunday bus service to the city.

“We want to make sure Langley is a hub and focal point for visitation,” the mayor said.

Curt Gordon, president of the Port’s board of commissioners, said Tuesday he was personally thrilled the city council was interested in such a partnership, but confirmed that the board has not taken action to officially endorse such an agreement.

However, he said he would be advocating for the support of his fellow commissioners on the proposal at a special meeting next week. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 9, and will be held at the South Parks & Recreation District headquarters on Maxwelton Road.

Road to success

The habits of both commuters and visitors are heavily dictated by the availability of transportation options, and Gordon believes the current lack of parking in Mukilteo is resulting in lost dollars for South Whidbey.

“Part of the reason people don’t walk on the ferry is because there is no place to park your car,” he said.

Existing parking facilities in Mukilteo have changed uses in recent years, resulting in a reduction of commuter and visitor parking, and Gordon has been looking into ways of acquiring land and building a replacement facility.

Similarly, Island Transit does not operate on Sunday, and both Kwarsick and Gordon think it represents a significant gap in service. That makes it hard for people to visit areas on the island for a weekend getaway without their vehicles and Kwarsick is especially interested in improving access to the city.

Alone, both objectives are difficult to achieve. Cities can’t own a park and ride out of their jurisdiction and ports don’t have the legal authority to implement a bus service. Partnering to achieve both goals makes sense, Kwarsick said.

“Together we can do that and provide a complete package,” the mayor said.

A pilot program for bus service would be limited between the city and ferry dock, though a few stops may be in between. Also, it would likely be a shuttle service or van, rather than an Island Transit bus.

Martha Rose, director of the transportation agency, said island-wide Sunday service is in Island Transit’s comprehensive plan, but it will be some time before it’s realized due to a lack of resources and other ongoing projects.

“It is in our plan and it’s something we will do,” Rose said. “It’s just not the right time for us to do it.”

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t support Langley’s efforts to implement a pilot program for Sunday bus service. Rose said she would be interested in the ridership data that is collected.

“Devil in the details”

The prospective grant is administered through the state Department of Transportation. The Regional Mobility Grant Program has provided about $60 million to support local projects since 2006, according to the agency’s website.

With an application deadline of Oct. 10, Kwarsick said the city is on a tight timeline and all the details have yet to be hammered out. For example, it’s still not clear how much will be asked for, he said.

“Obviously, the acquisition of land and the construction of a 65-car facility would be a multi-million dollar project,” Kwarsick said. “I can say that.”

However, he is confident a proposal will be ready in time for the commissioners meeting next week Tuesday, the day before the application deadline.

With no guarantee that the Port will even sign off on the partnership, despite Gordon’s support, Kwarsick said the city may be forced to forge ahead alone. In that case, he said the scope of the project would be reduced to only seeking the Sunday bus service.

“We’ll continue on on our own if we have to,” he said.

Port Commissioner Chris Jerome said he likes the idea of a partnership with the city, but he said he would need to learn more before he is willing to throw his support behind a joint grant proposal.

Improving access to South Whidbey and increasing tourism are objectives and goals of the port district but he has not yet even seen a formal proposal, much less had time to flesh out specifics.

“In principle, it sounds like a good idea but the devil is in the details,” Jerome said.

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