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Ferry Special Report: Imagine no ferries

It’s not unusual for Kingston’s Rebecca Bilbao to take to the skies out of Sea-tac International for work. She crosses Puget Sound every day, and when her Seattle-based public relations job does take her elsewhere, she’s got a sure system for getting back.

It’s a system that often involves the 11:45 p.m. ferry from Edmonds to Kingston.

An 11:45 p.m. ferry that might not be around long.

Bilbao is one of millions who use Washington State Ferries, and one of many in Kitsap County concerned her connection to and from the peninsula is about to suffer devastating cuts.

As the Washington State Legislature searches for ferry system savings, it’s worth pondering what happens if Plan B — a draft long-range plan calling for fewer boats on all runs but those to Bainbridge Island — goes into effect, from changes for commuters and tourists to the future growth and economic stability of the county.

Making the trip

Like Bilbao, Kingston commuter Rob Bright knows the ferry ropes well. He should. he’s been making the cross-Sound trip for more than a decade.

He said the cuts wouldn’t have much effect on his average commuting day, but in plenty of other ways they could pack an unwelcome punch.

Bright’s wife uses the ferries to travel to the University of Washington for medical appointments, and a decreased ferry system could threaten that medical access.

Visits with friends and family would take a hit as well, he contended.

“I would certainly say it costs relationships with people on the other side because you never see them,” said Bright. “And that’s without Plan B. Simply living in Kitsap can mean logistical difficulties. Plan B would be devastating.”

Another point as to why Plan B is a nonstarter, says Bright: “Nobody lives on the 9-to-5 schedule anymore.”

For Bilbao, that’s certainly true. She listed a few other changes Plan B could have — tanking property values, a quality of life backslide and population isolation were among them. Not to mention the difficulty of after-hours activities, which would be abandoned prematurely for ferry riders to make the final 9 p.m. boat home.

“It’s the kind of curfew you put on little kids,” she said.

Along with shutting down the North Kitsap route early, Plan B would eliminate most night runs at Bremerton, along with one of the run’s vessels.

That would likely mean a shift in ferry traffic flow, directing much of what normally would traverse the streets of Bremerton to the Bainbridge Island terminal.

Poulsbo City Councilman Ed Stern explained how Plan B could potentially wreak havoc on the county’s designated growth planning. The spotlight is currently focused on Bremerton and Silverdale, where enhanced funding is sent.

But an alteration to the ferry system could create an unanticipated growth corridor in the county’s North End, specifically Poulsbo and Bainbridge.

“If Plan B is implemeted, that undermines that level of both growth, land use and transportation planning,” Stern said. “Effectively in my mind the Poulsbo-to-Winslow corridor would become one of, if not the, major transportation corridors in the county.”

The shift wouldn’t only undermine years of planning effort.

Stern believes Bainbridge would suffer traffic congestion, and Bremerton would be left on the losing end.

“I think there would be a negative impact on Bremerton, which has tried real hard to locate a commuting and residential population to both its waterfront and throughout the community,” he said. “The Plan B has a lot of unintended consequences that would affect North Kitsap and South Kitsap negatively.”

One area that may not be harmed by the ferry cuts is tourism, according to Kitsap Visitor and Convention Bureau Executive Director Grant Griffin.

“I don’t see it as being a major blow to tourism,” he explained. “It’s the time of day (during which runs would be cut) that probably has the least effect.”

Griffin said he sees Plan B having more economic ramifications on delivery truck-reliant commerce. Tourists, he said, can still take ferry runs to Bainbridge or drive through Tacoma.

“Anytime you have multiple ways of access to the Kitsap Peninsula, it’s good for tourism,” he said.

Making Kitsap count

While the potential effects of Plan B can be speculated, some damage may already be done. From the sounds of collective complaints made by ferry users and Kitsap residents, the state’s hesitance to fund its “water highways“ has left many feeling less than warmhearted.

“It just makes living on the Kitsap side seem like we’re second class citizens,” Bilbao said. She pointed out that state ferry language often refers to ferry uses as consumers with a choice, not reliant citizens. “It’s pretty much a restriction of life.”

A “restriction of life“ is just one nom de guerre of several given to Plan B. It’s been called an “amputation of life,” a joke, a threat, and economically toxic.

“I don’t know if people will stay,” Bilbao noted.

The draft plan and accompanying public input will be submitted Jan. 31. An executive summary and full text of the draft plan can be downloaded at www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/planning/ESHB2358.

This is one part of a four-part feature on Washington State Ferries. Also see:

Local lawmakers join together | Commuters follow strict routine | WSF plan motivates riders

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