Two-car commuters facing dire future in Mukilteo

Island commuters who keep a car in Mukilteo to avoid waiting in line for the ferry are rapidly losing their overnight parking spots.

As many as 300 islanders keep an extra car on the mainland to avoid the hassles of driving on. But by September, there may be no overnight parking spots left.

“I think this will force me off the island,” said Gwethalyn Jones of Clinton, a veterinarian who uses two cars to commute to work at a clinic in Lake Stevens. “And I may not be the only one.”

The complaints of Whidbey commuters, however, are falling on deaf ears in Mukilteo.

“At the end of day, it’s not Mukilteo’s job to provide Whidbey commuters with parking,” said Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine. “It just isn’t.”

The demolition of the old Buzz Inn to make room for 12 additional ferry holding lanes in downtown Mukilteo already has wiped out about 18 overnight parking spaces, including one leased by Jones.

Two overnight Diamond parking lots near the Mukilteo Lighthouse that are being leased by island owners of about 170 vehicles are being taken over by the city, which is developing a park nearby and will reserve the remaining parking spaces for visitors.

“It’s just being loved to death, and we can really use the parking, especially evenings and busy weekends,” Marine said of the new park.

“Bottom line, we need that space.”

An additional 100 leased overnight Diamond parking spaces at the Rosehill Community Center, three-quarters of a mile up the road from the Mukilteo ferry terminal, may begin to disappear as early as July to make way for a new building. Bids for the facility are expected to go out within a month, Marine said.

Meanwhile, the search continues for a park-and-ride lot for commuters that could be reached by a shuttle bus. The best possible choice so far appears to be property along Mukilteo Speedway near Highway 99.

However, that option may be considered too expensive by island commuters, Marine said, and many commuters may be loath to go that far to reach their cars, especially those, such as Jones, who work in the opposite direction.

The old World War II fuel storage area next to downtown Mukilteo has the space, but placing commuter parking there isn’t an option.

An eight-year environmental effort to transfer ownership of the property from the Air Force to the Port of Everett and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is nearing completion, and commuter parking isn’t included in the plan and won’t be at this late stage, said Bud McKay, chief of community relations for the 62nd Airlift Wing at McChord Air Force Base south of Tacoma.

McKay said the goal is to transfer about 19 acres to the Port of Everett and another acre to NOAA by late this year or early next year, and that any change in the plan to accommodate parking would create an unacceptable delay.

“Even if we did, it would be a short-term solution,” he said. “It’s just not possible.”

Parking at the Sounder train station? The 68 spaces there are only for rail customers, and no overnight parking is permitted.

Street parking in the nearby residential area? Signs warn that there’s no parking between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., and that violators will be ticketed.

“We can’t have 300 cars trying to park overnight in our downtown streets,” Marine said.

“I don’t know a lot of other communities that are giving up space for commuters,” he added. “We did it as long as we could. Times are changing.”

That’s little solace for commuters such as Jones.

“It’s all so Mukilteo can have its pretty waterfront without looking at our ugly cars,” she said.

Jones, 49, is typical of island commuters who have come up with a clever way to avoid waiting in the ferry line.

Often in the company of her 13-year-old sheepdog Sherlock, she drives her weathered Toyota SUV or carpools to the Clinton park-and-ride lot behind the post office, then walks down and onto the ferry.

When the ferry reaches Mukilteo, she walks to her used Volkswagen Bug and drives to her workplace in Lake Stevens. She said she usually works four 10-hour days, and that her total daily commute on top of that is two-and-a-half hours.

“That’s maximal for me,” she said. “Longer is not an option.”

Jones fell in love with bucolic Whidbey and bought a house here about eight years ago. She said she was working in Everett at the time, and decided the commute was reasonable if she kept a car on each side.

The cars themselves are modest, she said. “I chose to have cars that don’t really interest anybody.”

It isn’t about the money, she added. What she saves on car-driver ferry tickets is less than the $70 to $80 a month she was paying to lease the parking space behind the Buzz Inn, plus the expense of maintaining two cars.

The important thing was the time she saved by walking aboard the ferry, especially on the Mukilteo side during the evening commute, and during weekends and the spring and summer tourist season.

Now Jones fears she will be forced to rent or sell her house and move back to the mainland, a prospect she finds daunting in the current economy. And finding employment on Whidbey has been discouraging.

“There’s no work on the island,” Jones said. “I’ve looked for work for eight years, and it isn’t going to happen.”

Her frustration about the parking situation in Mukilteo has driven her to activism. She has written letters to newspapers. She has contacted her state representatives, plus Mukilteo City Council members and other city officials. She plans to petition Gov. Christine Gregoire.

“Getting all of Whidbey to boycott all of Mukilteo would be a great start,” she said.

Marine said Mukilteo city officials can empathize with island commuters to a point. He said that for years, the city has had to deal with ferry commuters without much help from the state or anyone else.

He said that when there’s talk of putting money in the ferry system, it’s all about new boats, and not about easing the city’s burden when it comes to traffic.

“They can’t be throwing us under the bus,” Marine said. “We host communities seriously need help.”

He said the state’s plan to relocate the Mukilteo ferry terminal about 100 yards toward Everett to the site of the existing Navy pier won’t happen for four years, if then, if the Legislature comes through with the money. But even that wouldn’t reduce the city’s traffic congestion, he said.

Marine said 4 million people pass through the city each year.

“And we’re not like Edmonds, with four or five ways to get through the city. We just have one way,” he said. “When that backs up, there’s a terrible impact on the community.”

The mayor said he’d be more sympathetic to the problems of island commuters if the commuters themselves would be more sensitive to the problems of Mukilteo residents.

He said ferry traffic often blocks driveways and rarely pauses long enough to allow city residents to turn left from the highway to get to their homes.

Marine said the city’s parking committee will continue to search for ways to accommodate commuters. A parking garage appears economically and environmentally unfeasible, as does parking at nearby school property.

But in any case, the needs of the city come first, he said.

“We certainly aren’t going to take city resources to pay for people on Whidbey Island to park,” he continued. “Any solution has to be self-sustaining.”

And he added: “I would be trying to help a lot more if I thought the commuters would lend a hand and try to act like they care.”

Jones said she’s currently parking her mainland car where she can in Mukilteo, and already has received a couple of parking citations.

Jones said that if a parking solution can’t be found within a year, she expects to have to move, and said she probably wouldn’t be alone.

“Mukilteo is taking a hard line on parking, and it’s hurting a lot of people. The island stands to lose its population of working professionals,” Jones said.

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