Improving Three Gateways

Unless you’re going to fly, sail, or swim to the island, the three main ways to get to the island are the Deception Pass Bridge, the ferry to Coupeville, and the ferry to Clinton. The good news is that all three are being improved. The not-so-good news is that those improvements mean fairly large projects are happening at each gateway. Islanders are looking forward to waving goodbye to traffic cones and a few temporary closures.

Deception Pass Bridge is an international draw. It is a ~180 feet above the water (tide depending, of course) and ~1,400 feet long, jumps from one cliff on Fidalgo Island to tiny but tall Pass Island then straight on to another cliff on Whidbey Island. The two lane metal bridge was a major accomplishment in 1934 that becomes more apparent when standing on the sidewalk looking down at one of the fastest tidal currents of the Puget Sound. That was then. As homeowners know, regular maintenance can be a pain, but necessary. Maintaining a metal bridge that carries ~20,000 vehicles a day, that exists in salt air over a 180 foot drop to swirling saltwater makes any house project seem trivial. Corrosion happens. Paint peels. The last time it was painted was about twenty years ago. Time for a fresh coat, and maybe some inspections, and maybe some repairs, and maybe doing all of that without closing the only bridge to the island. They started in the Spring of 2019, and will be done when they’re done, which is scheduled to be Fall of 2021. In the meantime, there’s still a sidewalk open, but the parking is partly taken up with maintenance vehicles and systems. After that, hopefully the bridge will live many more decades.

Why only one bridge? Others have been considered, but the waters around Whidbey Island are hundreds of feet deep and floored with thick mud, the ship traffic is about as big and heavy as any international port gets, so any bridge would also have to be very tall and strong enough to survive an impact. Western Washington has a history of using floating bridges, but the depths and mud don’t help. Submerged bridges (submerged on purpose, not accidentally like one incarnation of the Hood Canal Bridge and one incarnation of the I-90 Mercer Island Bridge) are possible, but then again there are those big ships, strong currents, and terrible anchoring conditions. Besides, at Coupeville and Clinton, the bridges would be measured in miles. So, the cheaper solution is to use ferries. Ferries use terminals and terminals need maintenance, too.

The Coupeville Terminal is a mix of ironies. The route crosses the shipping lanes for all the ocean-going commercial and military vessels for Everett, Seattle, Bremerton, and Tacoma. It gets to play dodge-em with behemoths many times a day. Despite the depths, the Coupeville Terminal is in relatively shallow water. The mini-bay sits besides tidal currents strong enough to create standing white water. Those currents carry sediment, and dump significant quantities in places like bays, harbors, and the slip used by the ferry. The combination is also why the ferry to Port Townsend has to be small, shallow, and nimble. Unfortunately, the small, shallow, and nimble vessels then have to deal with big waves, big currents, large tidal ranges, and then there’s all that traffic. Dynamic. Removing that sediment in the slip is a major task, and one that won’t be done in a season. Think in terms of years, one season at a time, and affected by weather, ocean dynamics, and the hiccups any maintenance project can encounter. In the meantime, riders might get to see an enormous crane pulling up buckets of muck (that will be hauled away to …?).

Clinton’s terminal doesn’t have to deal with dredging to the same extent, but it “is one of the state’s busiest routes, with more than 4 million total riders every year.” The Clinton Terminal is actually in fairly good shape. It is built from concrete, nicely set with glass accents, has a covered walkway, and two ferry slips and ramps. The waiting line can stretch up the hill for a mile or more in summer, but it is an effective facility. The other side, the Mukilteo Terminal, however, was built over sixty years ago and was mostly timber. It was a good location back then, but the traffic volumes and backups dramatically affect Mukilteo. Several years ago, the Sounder Commuter Train run installed a station to carry commuters to downtown Seattle, but the closest it could reasonably be to the ferry was far enough that a casual walk (or someone favoring achy joints or sore muscles)might make a commuter miss their train. So, for the last few years the Ferry System has been building a new terminal a bit north of the old site. It is designed to work with the City of Mukilteo, coordinate better with the train, and manage passenger traffic much more readily. For a few days more, passengers have to pack into a small building or stand in the weather, then use the car ramp to board the ferry. As they board, the cars wait. The new facility should make the trip easier for passengers and drivers. For one day the ferry will take a day off as the traffic (and the ferry crews) shift from one terminal to the other.

Put all three together and it could look like every way onto the island was bottlenecked; and maybe that’s been so. But that was 2020 and before. Here’s looking forward to 2021 and beyond, and a bit more ease for islanders, commuters, and visitors. And thanks to everyone who is doing the work.

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