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Ferry System Has Folks Furious Tempers Flare Over Long Summer Waits, Line-Cutting, Canceled Runs

Associated Press

Passengers are boarding Washington state ferries in record numbers this summer, and the crunch has tempers flaring over long lines, line jumpers and canceled runs.

Susan Harris-Huether, spokeswoman for the ferry system, said numbers are still being compiled, but it’s clear waits have increased.

“I can’t remember the backups we have had, particularly at Mukilteo and Edmonds,” Harris-Huether said. “I’ve had more complaints this summer than I’ve ever had for people line-cutting. Of course, people are upset. They’re furious.”

Virtually every run has broken records this summer. The Mukilteo-to-Clinton route has broken its own record for vehicles three times. The new daily record for the run is 8,257 cars, set Aug. 1.

“I can’t believe how crowded it is,” terminal agent John Burnett said. “It’s amazing to me to see how rude and obnoxious some people are - even to the state patrol. I’ve seen (U.S. Sen.) Slade Gorton and Gov. Gary Locke wait in lines like everybody else, but then you have these me-me-me people that think they’re more important than everyone else that are a real problem.”

The long summer lines can leave motorists waiting up to eight hours in the San Juan Islands, two hours at Bainbridge Island - four if a ferry is out of service, as happened a couple of days last week - and three hours at Kingston.

State Rep. Karen Schmidt, R-Bainbridge Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Policy and Budget Committee, said she has witnessed a lot of frustration and confusion this summer.

“People are seething, pounding on cars and cutting - which gets people the most angry,” Schmidt said. “This year in particular, it seems to have really accelerated.”

“People ask me all the time, ‘When are we going to get relief?’ But until we find some solutions, the issue of road rage on ferry docks is not going to go away soon,” she said.

“I’m not a peace officer, but I’m getting pretty good at conflict management,” said Dan Ferguson, terminal agent at Clinton, at the south end of Whidbey Island. “People are just venting, and trying everything to bypass the wait. We really get an earful.”

While they wait for new boats to come on line, ferry officials, local leaders and policy-makers are considering a variety of long-term options, ranging from van-pool incentives and a tougher law against cutting in line, to new terminals, ferry slips and holding areas.

In the meantime, local police and the Washington State Patrol plan to bolster their ferry-terminal staffing for the Labor Day weekend. And ironically, Washington State Ferries itself has recommended on its hotline that those in a hurry “drive around” Puget Sound.

The main reasons for the long lines are basic: A population boom, more tourists, and a sharp increase in cross-sound daily commuters.

Some relief will come when the new ferry Tacoma enters service on the Seattle-Bainbridge route in October. It will carry only 12 more vehicles than the Walla Walla, which it will replace. But the Walla Walla will shift to the Edmonds-Kingston run - the busiest for commercial truck traffic - adding space for 45 more vehicles.

Officials say that in addition to finding the money, the biggest obstacles to making improvements are local issues such as private property rights and resistance to increased traffic.

At Fauntleroy in West Seattle, for example, traffic lines stretch far uphill. But local resistance to an expanded ferry dock and holding area is fierce, Harris-Huether said.

“The real solution is to provide relief,” Schmidt said. “But while we’re trying to increase capacity system-wide, you have areas where local governments are fighting us. … Meanwhile, there is more and more back-up and the public is getting more and more angry.”

In the meantime, passengers who don’t plan ahead shouldn’t expect to jump ahead in line, even for excuses such as doctor’s appointments, important business meetings, childcare or airport connections.

Dockworkers such as Maria Mezich, a ticket taker at Clinton, says she’s heard just about every excuse in the book.

“There was a woman who came late but wanted to load first because of her prize-winning birds,” Mezich said. “She threatened to sue us if they got sick. … And there was the guy who said he cut off his finger and had to get to the hospital, except there wasn’t any blood.”

“When we send them to the back of the line, they are furious,” Mezich said. “But people behind them cheer, honk and tell you thank you.”

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