WSF tightening vessel security

Plans for a new pedestrian access are scuttled, upsetting trails advocates.

Tighter security measures are kicking in aboard Washington State Ferries and at terminals, officials said this week.

A pack of explosives-sniffing dogs is being trained and deployed, more state troopers will be seen on vessels, and even riders themselves are being enlisted in the cause – asked to be on the lookout for suspicious activity.

“It makes sense,” said Pat Patterson, WSF spokeswoman. “There are a lot of folks who are your readers who ride those boats five days a week or more, and know when something isn’t quite right.”

The changes were announced at a press conference Monday, which included a statement by WSF Director Mike Thorne.

The increased security comes by order of the United States Coast Guard, which has charged shipping companies, ports and other maritime agencies to develop plans against terrorist threats.

Patterson said the maritime world has its own three-tiered system of terrorism alerts – MarSec, or Marine Security – and if the threat of terrorism is perceived to be acute, random searches of vehicles in ferry holding areas could resume.

Such searches were introduced in 2002, but abandoned after they drew criticism on constitutional grounds. Since then, WSF and the Coast Guard have consulted with the state Attorney General’s office to determine when such searches would be permissable.

“The advice that we have from the AG’s office is that under the circumstances of heightened security, (searches are) a requirement,” Patterson said. “If we were to go to Level 2, it’s likely you would see troopers out there supplementing dogs in vehicle screening. If troopers saw something that piqued their’s very possible that they would ask to take a look and see what’s in there.”

One casualty of the heightened security may be a new pedestrian walkway planned as part of the expansion of the Winslow terminal holding area.

Under the conditions of an already-approved shoreline permit, WSF was slated to construct a second overhead walkway that would take walk-on passengers to the south side of the holding area, where they would find a new pedestrian path along the shoreline. That path, in turn, was to link up with the popular pedestrian trail through the Winslow ravine and Waterfront Park; planning documents show several possible trail routes, including one through a woodland next to the holding area.

The overhead walkway was touted as a way to take pedestrians out of the miasma of traffic coming and going along Olympic Drive, allowing folks to reach the waterfront trail by passing safely over the cars below.

But WSF officials recently asked the city that the agency no longer be required to build the overhead route, citing “homeland security” concerns.

“Since 9/11, WSF is required to provide security measures that would restrict access to the vicinity of the ferry terminal and beach area,” ferries officials wrote in a May 6 correspondence to the city Department of Planning and Community Development.

“We’re not supposed to, any longer, have that kind of access to the terminals – pedestrians (being) able to go right next to the terminal without going through the main entryway, either paying, passing through security or both,” Schorr said this week. “As with any other transportation system, we just can’t operate the way we used to.”

But the change of plans has irked trails advocates, who have lobbied for years for a direct link between the waterfront trail and the ferry terminal, and for increased public access to the shoreline.

Park board members and some City Council members have also expressed concern that the walkway plan could be abandoned, and urged citizens to express their views to the mayor’s office.

Charles Schmid, a member of the Waterfont Trail Committee, said this week that the connection between the ferry terminal and Waterfront Park is called for in the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the Winslow Master Plan and other local planning documents.

His committee has asked the city to continue to require the walkway as WSF expands the holding area.

The holding area expansion itself has been opposed by residents of the Eagle Harbor Condominiums next door.

Hearings on the issue slated for late May were postponed; city planners have asked WSF to provide more information on how it would deal with pedestrian issues.

Schmid expressed skepticism about the threat to ferry security posed by a new pedestrian connection.

“Ask them how-many-pound backpacks some (terrorist) is going to carry onto the ferry, instead of driving an old Chevy on,” Schmid said.

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