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Terminal tangle of wheels, legs

A bicycle commuter crosses the double-yellow line to avoid vehicle traffic exiting the ferry Wenatchee Monday afternoon. - Julie Busch photo
A bicycle commuter crosses the double-yellow line to avoid vehicle traffic exiting the ferry Wenatchee Monday afternoon.
— image credit: Julie Busch photo

Ferry officials, pedestrian advocates clash over plans for the Winslow dock.

[Third of three parts. Previous installments looked at the WSF maintenance facility on Eagle Harbor, and hopes for a community boat haul-out facility there.]

If the time was right in 1999 to give pedestrians and bicyclists a ferry terminal pathway of their own, it’s six years overdue today.

That’s the view of a coalition of local non-motorized transportation advocates, who hope to hold Washington State Ferries accountable to a 1999 ruling mandating a bike and footpath included in the initial stages of terminal upgrades.

“It was important to have this path in 1999 and it’s even more important now for the community,” said Charles Schmid, who has long campaigned for an improved pedestrian connection to the Bainbridge ferry terminal. “Things have gotten dicier and dicier at the terminal, while (WSF) has put this off.”

At any given rush hour, hundreds of pedestrians, bicyclists and automobiles are bottlenecked into Olympic Drive’s narrow corridor.

Pedestrians cut in and out of the auto traffic stream, as many bike riders pedal in the middle of the street to dodge offloading cars and trucks.

“It’s an insult,” said Bart Berg, a regular bicyclist who has joined Schmid and others in challenging the ferry system on the safety issue. “It’s amazing how long (WSF) has done nothing. I’d like to make all the (officials) ride off that ferry and have them experience it.

“They’re a bunch of bureaucrats in some office somewhere. I don’t think they get daily safety. They operate in their own culture and there’s clearly a division going on here.”

Even if WSF is missing the point on safety, they should at least be able to see the logic of funneling bikes and walkers to the terminal’s west side, where Waterfront Park and downtown are easier to access, said trails advocate John Grinter.

“From a pedestrian and cyclist’s standpoint, it just makes sense to find a way to go into Winslow without ever having to cross Olympic Drive,” Grinter said. “It really is a no-brainer to get off the boat on the west side and head straight down to the Waterfront Park trail.”

But WSF officials say such plans are either unsafe or too early to consider as the Winslow terminal undergoes a $160 million upgrade over the next 12 years.

WSF hopes to skirt past a 1999 city hearings examiner decision mandating that “a pedestrian sidewalk and bicycle lane shall be installed as part of (a) dock widening proposal.”

In a recent administrative decision, city planning director Larry Frazier allowed WSF to nix the pedestrian link in its shoreline development permit but held firm on requirements for the bike path.

Frazier’s decision was unpopular on both fronts; WSF has appealed requirement of a bike lane, while non-motorized advocates have appealed deletion of the walking path requirement. The non-motorized group’s appeal will be heard before the hearing examiner Thursday morning at City Hall.

“I can’t force the state to build something they don’t want to, but I can amend it,” Frazier said, adding that WSF’s homeland security concerns played into his decision to allow WSF to cut the pedestrian pathway.

The non-motorized transportation group agrees Frazier’s authority is limited, but believe he overstepped those limits when he issued his decision.

Frazier “can make minor alterations,” the group’s appeal states. “However, he has made major changes to requirements which have been stipulated in staff reports, correspondence, Planning Commission recommendations and by the hearing examiner.”

The group, which includes downtown business owners, also objects to the lack of public input in Frazier’s decision, adding that it “was carried out without community support or consideration of the resulting financial impacts on Bainbridge Island waterfront businesses or tourist trade.”

As downtown planning efforts highlight the need for pedestrian and bicycle amenities, the group says Frazier’s decision and WSF’s position are out of step with community values.

“Look at the (city’s) Comprehensive Plan and Winslow Tomorrow,” Schmid said. “They emphasis bicycles and people walking downtown.”

But “only small dollars are being designated for pedestrians and there are no new plans included for them,” states the group’s appeal, adding that WSF is failing to match their plans with the growing number of non-motorized ferry users.

The Winslow terminal is the ferry system’s busiest, with more than 2.1 million vehicles and 6.4 million passengers flowing through in 2004. By WSF estimates, ridership will almost double in 25 years.

Built in 1950s, the terminal suffers from rot underneath and overcrowding above. WSF plans to finish what it considers the terminal’s most urgent work, including dock widening and trestle replacement, by next year.

Design and construction of other upgrades, including the replacement of the terminal building, will happen simultaneously through 2017.

WSF officials say building a new pedestrian link now as it widens the dock would be poorly timed.

“We want to look at Winslow Tomorrow, population projections and infrastructure needs so we’re not going in willy-nilly and have to revise in light of changes,” said WSF project manager Laura Aradanas.

Russ East, WSF’s director of terminal engineering, said he understands residents’ concerns but said the ferry system is looking out for the island’s best interests.

“They feel ignored, but we want to make sure (the terminal) is safe, functional, secure and that it’s a viable facility,” East said. “If we go in today and build (a new pedestrian connection), we may need to change plans and waste taxpayer dollars.

“We have a responsibility to utilize taxpayer money efficiently without having to do things over again.”

East had earlier stated at public meetings on Bainbridge that WSF is committed to a trail connection on the terminal’s west side, but this week would not estimate when such a link would be constructed.

Grinter fears state funds could dry up in the meantime, especially if Initiative 912 passes in November and repeals the state’s new 9.5 cent gas tax. According to WSF, funding for the Bainbridge terminal could be on the chopping block if the initiative passes.

Ferry officials stated flatly that bikes would not link with the proposed westside trail.

“Bikes and pedestrians don’t mix very well,” East said. “But we’ll look at widening the road and at keeping them on the main roadway.”

East said WSF must also consider a number of homeland security concerns in its planning efforts, which will likely delay or limit pedestrian and bicycle improvements.

But for Berg, if WSF was truly concerned about security and safety, they would have put pedestrian and bicycle improvements into high gear years ago.

“It really fries me when they talk about homeland security,” he said.

“If we’re worried about homeland security, let’s get to work with these projects and make our home secure now.”

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Terminal mess

The city hearing examiner will consider a non-motorized transportation group’s appeal regarding ferry terminal pedestrian amenities at 10 a.m. Thursday at City Hall. Information: 842-7633.

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