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Ferry terminal plan has rocky reception

The Keystone-to-Port Townsend ferry canceled 95 runs last year due to currents or fog. For those left waiting on the dock, the 30-minute crossing turned into at least a three-hour wait. For ferry captains, the run is a constant nightmare.

“That crossing is 25 minutes of bliss followed by five minutes of terror,” Capt. Jim Malde, Washington State Ferries port captain likes to say. He said piloting the 256-foot ferries into the narrow Keystone Harbor is a challenge, to say the least. They even have a name for it: “Shooting the hole.”

Capt. Tim McGuire, who operates the ferry on that run, agreed with Malde’s assessment.

“You have to really be focused for about five minutes,” he said. “I turn off all noise, and nobody talks.”

McGuire said in nine years on the run he has never run aground, although he said it’s not a matter of if, but when. He has been forced to make three landings in zero visibility — fog so thick he couldn’t see the front of the boat, let alone the looming dock full of cars and people.

“Your knees shake,” he said. After those kinds of landings he often climbs out of the wheelhouse to walk around the deck and calm down before the boat is loaded and it starts all over again.

Ferry officials cite Coast Guard records of about two groundings a year on the run. A grounding can be anything from touching bottom but still making the landing, to actually being stuck on the bottom, unable to move.

That happened two years ago, when the ferry Quinault ground to a halt near the shore of the Fort Casey campground. Their destination was in sight, but passengers were stuck on the boat for more than six hours before rising tides and a tug boat freed it.

Ferry officials say something needs to change.

Officials from Washington State Ferries held a public scoping meeting in Coupeville Tuesday night as part of the process of planning a new docking facility at Keystone. The meeting followed the completion of a feasibility study, for which public meetings were held locally two years ago.

While the 75-plus community members in attendance had many questions and concerns, the ferry officials had only two certainties to offer them: The old boats on the run will be replaced by larger boats, and Keystone Harbor is too small for them. Building new boats to fit the harbor is not an option.

“The fundamental principle is, smaller, specialized ferries don’t meet the needs,” Ray Deardorf, director of planning, said. “The location is driven by currents, beam and holding capacity.”

While reducing cancellations is one goal, the main incentive for updating the terminal is that the old boats need to be replaced with ones which are interchangeable on other routes.

Deardorf called the move an “economy of scale,” as the boats could be used throughout the system.

“We need to ensure a viable system going into the future,” he said.

The ferry system plans on replacing the 76-year-old steel electric ferries with the Issaquah Class or similar vessel. The bigger boat would hold 130 cars, while the current boats hold 90 cars.

Replacing the boats and updating the terminals both at Keystone and Port Townsend is estimated to cost $74 million.

Alternative landing sites offered

Three possible terminal alternatives were offered, including rebuilding the current harbor and dock; locating a new dock at the south end of Keystone Spit; and a third alternative, not publicly seen before, of locating a terminal at the south end of Admirals Cove beach.

Celia Schorr, Washington State Ferries community outreach coordinator, assured the audience that these were only suggested alternatives, and that they were willing to consider other options.

Marianne Edain, member of the environmental protection group WEAN, asked the ferry representatives how many of these “targets” they would be chasing.

“This is the kitchen sink,” Schorr responded. “We need to consider all alternatives during the scoping process.”

The goal, she said, was to move people and boats in an environmentally benign way.

Participants were most concerned with how any new terminal would affect Crocket Lake and its sensitive wildlife population.

Whidbey Island Audobon Society has expressed concern that if the current harbor is abandoned it will silt in, affecting the flow of water in and out of Crockett Lake.

Wendy Moon, a Fort Casey road resident, was one of those concerned about the lake.

“I’m concerned about the environmental degradation at Crockett Lake. We walk there a lot,” she said.

Renee Smith, a member of the pioneer Smith family, said it was essential to preserve the wildlife area.

“I don’t want to see Crockett Lake endangered. It’s extremely important as a wildlife habitat.”

Smith also noted that the “potholes” at the south end of Keystone Spit were important water fowl areas as well.

“We’ve taken so much away from the birds,” she said, “it’s time we gave something back.”

Project timeline given

Wherever the terminal is built or rebuilt, it won’t be happening anytime soon.

Dana Moreland, project manager, outlined the timeline for the project. After this initial scoping period, an environmental review of the options will begin, lasting through mid 2005. Another public comment period will take place in the spring of 2004, with the preferred preliminary alternatives selected by summer. There will be a third public comment period in early 2005, with a final decision expected by fall 2005.

After a year of design work and permitting, construction would start in late 2006 or early 2007, with completion and vessels on the route by June 2008.

“My challenge is to develop a project to meet that timeline,” Moreland said.

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