New furor over ferry security

Proposed federal guidelines to increase security aboard Washington State Ferries vessels has drawn fire from commuters and local lawmakers.

Drafted by the U.S. Coast Guard, the measures could subject ferry commuters to airport-style screening. But on Monday, Admiral Tom Collins, Coast Guard commandant, apologized for not informing members of the Washington State congressional delegation about the proposed measures.

Collins promised that, absent a national emergency, the guidelines would not be implemented without the involvement of local authorities.

Among those critical of the proposals was U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

“There is no question we live in a new era, where the security of our transportation systems is paramount,” said Murray, who chairs the Senate Transportation Appropriations Committee. “But an exhaustive new inspection and security regimen must include local input, from the people who manage and use the ferry system every day.

“We don’t need long lines that keep passengers away from their families and jobs unnecessarily.”

Collins said there is no new intelligence indicating a threat to ferry operations. Coast Guard staff are in the process of drafting a new press release to clarify the security procedures, he said.

Concerns over the security measures prompted comment from lawmakers and commuters as news of the proposals surfaced over the weekend.

“It just really worries me when the federal government starts sending rules and regulations for us to adhere to without a good understanding of what they are regulating,” said Sen. Betti Sheldon (D-Bremerton). “We have the largest ferry fleet in the nation, and it’s a huge factor in our transportation system.”

Pat Patterson, a spokeswoman for the ferry system, cautioned the public to not jump to conclusions too quickly, since the regulations are not yet adopted.

“Nothing is imminent,” Patterson said. “This is a draft plan.”

The Coast Guard drafted the security measures and submitted them to WSF last month. They would affect any ferry in the nation that carries more than 500 passengers in the nation, meaning all auto ferries in the Washington state system would be impacted.

WSF, the marine division of the state Department of Transportation, carries roughly 26 million passengers a year and is the largest in the nation.

The proposals come a little more than a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, a group representing the ferry system, the Washington State Patrol and the Coast Guard have met regularly to discuss safety and security concerns for crews, passengers and vessels.

Earlier this summer, troopers conducted random searches of vehicles about to board vessels, but the practice was abandoned after public outcry.

The new safety measures are not being enforced by the Coast Guard yet, and ferry officials are optimistic that changes can be made.

“The working relationship between the ferry system, the State Patrol and the Coast Guard is actually very cordial,” Patterson said. “We all have a common goal here, it’s just that we don’t have a common understanding yet of how we will get there.”

The groups plan to meet in late November to talk about the proposed measures. Meanwhile, chairs of local ferry advisory committees of local ferry advisory committees will meet Nov. 7 at Colman Dock.

The U.S. Department of Transportation submitted the Coast Guard proposal in a letter to ferry officials last month. The measures illustrate a three-tier security system to be employed under certain circumstances.

Level 1, the lowest security level, could involve an increased presence from the State Patrol.

It would also mean 5 percent of the vehicles boarding ferries, as well as any “suspicious” vehicles, would be screened on ferries certified to carry 2,000 passengers or more.

That would include the ferries Tacoma, Wenatchee, Puyallup, Walla Walla, Spokane, Elwha, Yakima, Kaleetan and Hyak.

Level 2, a moderate security level, would see screening 10 to 20 percent of passengers, as well as 25 to 50 percent of vehicles, baggage and provisions.

Level 3, or the highest threat level, would require all passengers and vehicles waiting to board the ferries to be searched.

Under the proposal, the listed security measures would be implemented according to the perceived terrorist threat level.

“For us, Levels 2 and 3 raise most of our questions,” Patterson said. “In terms of finances, one thing leads to another.

“If in fact we had to gear up for possibly searching 100 percent of the passengers, we’d have to have secured areas, the appropriate equipment, the personnel. It would be just like an airport, if you will.”

Concerns don’t just involve financial impacts, but the impact on the overall transportation system – it could cause scaled-back schedules, a drop in ridership, pushing some commuters onto the roads, some state lawmakers say.

“The effect on transportation should this be implemented is huge,” Sheldon said. “The roads would be impassible if the ferries aren’t running smoothly.

Civil liberties are also an issue for Sheldon, who plans to contact Kitsap County’s U.S. congressional delegation.

Patterson said the idea is to think longer term.

“The committee is trying to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” she said. “The idea is to have a plan in place ahead of time, ssome set of protocol to fall back on so everybody knows the plan and we have the training and equipment.

“There is no deadline for this; it is a work in progress,” she said. “We would all like to come to some resolution on this soon. There is nothing pending, however, and no end date, which is a sign there is a willingness to work this out instead of just doing it.”

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