Fast Ferry in Washington Leaves Environmental Damage in Wake

By JULIA WELLS

As the Steamship Authority considers a plan to launch high-speed passenger ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard, a new scientific study has found that a state-of-the-art high-speed passenger ferry is causing erosion and environmental shoreline damage in the state of Washington.

The prescription for the Chinook, the ultra-high-speed ferry that runs between the cities of Seattle and Bremerton?

Slow down.

"This is not over. A lawsuit over property damage continues, but a few fast ferries are slowing down," declared an editorial in the Seattle Times last week.

The study results were announced late last month.

The $1 million-plus study was commissioned by Washington State Ferries last year, after a superior court judge ordered the state ferry system to examine the impacts of its own high-speed ferry on Rich Passage, a narrow, six-mile stretch between the Kitsap Peninsula and Bainbridge Island. In an unprecedented ruling, the judge found that the ferry system should have conducted an environmental assessment under the state environmental policy act.

The ruling was later reversed by the state supreme court, a short time before the environmental study was complete.

The story of the Chinook has many differences but also many striking similarities with the developing story of high-speed ferry service between New Bedford and the Vineyard.

Among other things, the Chinook was hailed as an important element in the effort to revitalize the city of Bremerton and diversify the economy there. When the high-speed ferry was put into service, property values went up and the demand for property skyrocketed in Bremerton.

The ferry was first launched in the spring of 1998. The 350-passenger high-speed passenger boat cost $8.7 million to build, plus the ferry company spent another $650,000 to buy spare parts for the boat.

A year later, residents of Rich Passage sued the state ferry system, claiming the waves from the jet-propelled high-speed passenger ferry were causing erosion and other environmental damage along their beaches.

In August of 1999 King County superior court Judge Glenna Hall ordered the Chinook to slow down from 34 knots to 12 knots for a two-and-a half-mile stretch in Rich Passage, until an environmental study commissioned by the ferry system was complete. The judge did not rule on the merits of the environmental damage, but she said expressly that Washington State Ferries should have conducted an environmental study before putting the Chinook into operation in the spring of 1998.

The ruling was followed by an editorial in the Seattle Times.

"Is this new generation ferry to blame? . . . Precious little homework was done on the effect of wakes from a catamaran ferry traveling at 35 mph. . . . Belated environmental assessments are now under way," the editorial said in part.

"We are complying," responded Paul Green, the director and chief executive officer for Washington State Ferries in a stinging response to the editorial. He also wrote:

"Washington State Ferries is committed to providing fast ferry service to Bremerton. We support the efforts of Kitsap County to diversify its economy and share in our region's current prosperity. We have no doubts that the passenger-only fast-ferry program has suffered a temporary setback. . . . In the long run, however, we believe a thorough scientific review of what's happening in Rich Passage will conclude that the Chinook is not the source of the problem."

Two weeks ago the report was released, and scientists concluded without question that the Chinook is a primary contributor to the problem.

The Chinook slowdown will add 10 minutes to the 30-minute trip. It also means the ferry system will have to eliminate two trips a day from the schedule.

Area commuters are unhappy about the slowdown, but residents of Rich Passage - who say their shoreline has taken a beating from the huge wake generated by the ferry - are rejoicing.

"Gridlocked commuters . . . will be rolling their eyes over the protests of an extra 10 minutes to the daily ferry commute. So much for laid-back island life," declared an editorial in the Seattle Times.

Rich Passage residents continue to press their case in court; among other things, they want the ferry system to pay for repairing the environmental damage caused by the ferry.

A press spokesman for Washington State Ferries yesterday said environmental impacts from high-speed ferries is a growing - and global -  problem.

"We are finding that this is something that is not just regional but worldwide - it's a huge issue," said Pat Patterson.

"Every ferry system in the world is trying to figure out how to grapple with fast ferries. The science and the technology is forever evolving," she said: "This is not just about the fast ferry. It's about the fast ferry and all the other vessels and the bulkheads and the tides and the currents. We had made the commitment when this started that if we were part of the problem we would be part of the solution, and that is why we are now agreeing to slow down the ferry [Chinook].

"We are hopeful that when we have the money - and that is the really big problem - that we will be able to develop a fast ferry that can run through Rich Passage."