LANGLEY — Support for a funicular — a one-car, public people mover that would be built to connect Cascade Avenue to the Langley Marina area — is on the rise in Langley.
The city council has signed off on a plan last week to shift money originally earmarked to widen Wharf Street to the new funicular project. And on Monday, Langley officials received a letter of support for the funicular from Island Transit.
Langley Planning Director Jeff Arango said the city received a $242,243 county grant in rural economic development funds in 2005 to widen the upper portion of Wharf Street. With the council’s approval, Arango will now submit a new application to the Island County Council of Governments and give a presentation on the city’s funicular plan at its next meeting Feb. 25 in the hope that the grant can be redirected to the funicular project.
Support from Island Transit and the Port of South Whidbey is crucial, and is starting to firm up.
In its letter of support for transferring the grant, Island Transit said the funicular project was “a much wiser use of those funds.” Executive Director Martha Rose said it would enhance access to the Langley Marina without adding more traffic to the constricted area at the bottom of Wharf Street.
“Island Transit has been a supporter of a funicular in Langley to get pedestrians to and from the marina for years,” Rose wrote. “Over the past 24 years we’ve been requested to run a bus down the hill to the marina because it is a difficult hill to climb, especially for the elderly and disabled. However, our buses simply can’t navigate the hill or turn around because space is too limited at the marina to safely maneuver a bus.”
Interest in a funicular — a tram-like vehicle that uses a cable to pull passenger cars up and down a slope — at the marina was reinvigorated by recent talks between city officials and developers hoping to build a four-story, commercial/residential building on the Drake’s Landing property.
That development project, called Wharf Street Landing, would include homes, office space, a 60-seat restaurant, and a public landing for a one-car funicular on the building’s second floor.
City officials say the funicular would provide greater access to the marina, given the limited space for parking at the end of Wharf Street. At the council meeting last week, Arango shared artist sketches of the funicular project that were created by local architect Ron Kasprisin.
Arango said the grant funding was originally earmarked for Wharf Street so a 450-foot-stretch of the roadway could be widened to 20 feet.
“The thinking was that by widening it, you would avoid any conflicts between two large vehicles passing each other,” he said.
Arango noted the street is about 17 feet wide, and though narrow, two large vehicles could probably still pass each other on the roadway even if it isn’t widened.
More important, however, is what would happen once the marina is expanded. The Port of South Whidbey expects to begin work this year on its marina expansion project but uplands space is extremely limited near the marina, and that means little room for additional boat trailers or other visitor vehicles.
The marina now has parking for six boat trailers, a small space when compared to other boat ramp facilities such as the one in Freeland, which has room for 15 boat trailers.
“Even if you were to widen Wharf Street, I would really question whether that would really increase access and use of the marina since there wouldn’t be any place to park,” Arango said.
“We’re not going to increase any use if they have no place to park,” he said.
With the funicular in place, people could park at the city’s planned park-and-ride on Cascade Avenue or elsewhere in town and ride the funicular down to the marina.
“It reduces the parking demand at the marina,” Arango explained.
“There’s 20 to 30 parking spaces down at the marina and that’s not going to change. And that’s very limiting for a large-scale marina, of course,” he said.
The funicular could also help spur other improvements along the Cascade Avenue promenade.
“This would be a catalyst for it,” Arango said. “By putting the funicular landing in its proposed location, that becomes a design opportunity. It becomes an opportunity for public art, for community celebration, for viewing platforms, and it becomes kind of a good gateway into the community as you come around the corner and down Cascade.”
Some issues will need to be sorted out later, according to city officials, including how to keep local youths from using trips up and down the funicular as late-night entertainment. Others have also wondered how much it will cost to keep the funicular running.
Councilman Hal Seligson noted the proposal is still in its early stages, and cost issues will be addressed as work on the project continues.
“I’m confident that staff are going to look into all those aspects to get estimations as to what a maintenance contract with our local funicular maintenance company might be,” Seligson said.
When someone quipped the “local” company might be Swiss, Seligson joked that would present another opportunity.
“Well, there you go. We could visit our money. Some of us.
“Some of you,” he quickly added, counting himself out.
Officials note the grant money from the Wharf Street project will not fully fund the funicular, which is expected to cost about a half million dollars. Mayor Larry Kwarsick said the city would also seek a grant from the state Recreation and Conservation Office to help pay for the project.
Kwarsick said the city would apply for an RCO grant this summer, and approved grant funding requests are usually awarded the following year.
The RCO usually approves more than 200 grants, totaling roughly $60 million, each year.
Port Manager Ed Field said Tuesday that port commissioners generally support the funicular project.
He also said the topic is expected to be discussed at a special port meeting Wednesday night.