VIEWPOINT: Closer but still no cigar on ferry issue

I continue to marvel at the protracted saga of the Keystone-Port Townsend ferry run as official thinking grinds glacially in the direction of a reasonable solution. At least the silly idea of building a 50-car “toy” ferry as a stop-gap solution for the route has finally been abandoned.

The plan now is to build two of the “Island Home design” ferries, roughly the same size as the old Steel Electrics, the thought being that they will more safely withstand the severe weather and seas of Admiralty Inlet and do somewhat better negotiating tiny Keystone Harbor than the previous boats. It remains to be seen whether this will prevent the large number of cancellations due to waves and tides to which this run was prone prior to the removal of the old Steel Electrics.

If we suspend disbelief on that issue for a moment, the one serious problem the Island Home boats will not solve is the woefully inadequate capacity that has existed on this route for a number of years already. Without solving this issue, the latest plan is not a long-term plan as some have recently claimed.

The premature pronouncement that we have good short term and long term plans is a little like the police at an accident scene telling passersby, “Move along folks, there’s nothing more to see here.” I wish that was true. There is simply nothing remotely acceptable about a plan that perpetuates two to three hour or longer waits and strandings on weekends from April to October.

When one considers that we won’t even have these ferries until 2010 (if they are built on time) and that they will need to provide service for 35 to 40 years, the fact that they will be under capacity the moment they hit the water is not only not a viable long term plan, it is not even a good plan for the present.

How this continues to be swept under the rug is mystifying indeed. There is no valid reason why ferry transportation needs to be inherently characterized by severe delays except in the most extreme situations like holidays.

There are only two solutions to the capacity issue. If we are to accept the continued use of Keystone Harbor, we need to take advantage of the fact that the crossing is about 30 minutes and use a different schedule with three boats on the weekends.

This would require an additional slip in Port Townsend in front of the ugly strip mall that is so terribly out of character with this historic town.

The only other solution is to move the Whidbey terminal down the beach toward Admiral’s Cove where it was many decades ago before it was moved to Keystone. The bottom profile along that beach is quite similar to that at Mukilteo and a smaller version of the Clinton dock could be built with modern technology to withstand the winds and waves and to make docking under difficult conditions safe.

This would have the positive side effect of making Keystone Harbor a much quieter place for small pleasure boats and the enjoyment of the campers at the Fort Casey campground. It would also preserve the adjacent underwater marine park and make it more pleasant for those divers knowledgeable enough to negotiate the strong currents. By adopting this solution, as capacity requirements grow, as they surely will, larger and larger ferries could be used on the run.

As for Port Townsend’s objection that larger ferries will result in more traffic disruption on their streets as the ferries disgorge their cars, if one empties a 75-car ferry, producing a 6-minute “pulse” of cars through town, a 100-car ferry will produce roughly an 8-minute “pulse.” This seems like a reasonable thing to ask of them in order to provide more tourist revenue dollars and to facilitate business transportation for all of Island, Jefferson, Clallam and Skagit counties. All the people of these counties should have been polled about this long ago instead of leaving the decision to a mere handful on an invisible and localized ferry advisory committee.

If we keep approaching the plan that will actually solve all the run’s issues as gradually as we have been, we’re going to have to start using the nicknames David Mosey and Paullyanna Hammond for our WSF and WSDOT leaders.

We’re closer to the right solution than we were, but until the plan solves the fundamental capacity issue, it’s still not a good plan. Let’s admit, without further delay, that we either have to move the Keystone terminal or build three Island Home ferries and a third slip in Port Townsend.

Bill Viertel is a Coupeville resident.