Ferry rules raising anxiety - Security proposals could mean long waits
Everett, WA - Proposed security measures from the U.S. Coast Guard that could require intensive screening in the most extreme circumstances have state ferries officials and passengers concerned.
The new rules are expected by July 1, and the wait is creating anxiety among commuters who already have long waits and ferry officials who worry the changes will be costly and time-consuming.
"It's a tough balance," ferry spokeswoman Patricia Patterson said. "On one hand, you've got to allow people like the Washington State Ferries to stay in business, but on the other hand, you have to make sure people feel safe."
The proposed rules are part of the Maritime Transportation Security Act signed by President Bush in November. The act calls for new security measures to be implemented and enforced by July 2004.
"We're not trying to alarm people, but if you look at the extremes of the issue, we think people do need to take note," Patterson said. "The most onerous of the regulations would only be in place under the most severe circumstances. If we were at that place in the world, in my mind, I'm thinking a lot of people wouldn't even be going to work."
Still, a requirement that the ferries be prepared to have such a stringent security system in place could be costly, Patterson said. Security upgrades could cost millions of dollars, and the ferry system already is strapped for cash.
"That's a big investment, which is another concern for us," Patterson said. "Frankly, we would hope the federal government would fund the mandate."
Cathy Opray of Everett, who was waiting Monday for the ferry to Clinton and rides it at least once a week, didn't take kindly to the possible security upgrades.
"It's like all of these security things," she said. "If something is going to happen, it's going to happen regardless of what they try to do to stop it."
She said longer waits would mean fewer people riding the ferries.
"I think I'd just drive around" to Whidbey Island, Opray said. "The view's going to be a lot nicer, and there would be less stress. They're going to scare a lot of people away."
That's what has U.S. Reps. Rick Larsen, D-2nd District, and Jay Inslee, D-1st District, concerned. Both congressmen say the Coast Guard needs to acknowledge the critical role the ferry system plays in the state.
"Anything that hinders our ferries from moving will run the state into the ground," Larsen said, adding they are not simply joyrides for tourists.
"The ferries are part of our transportation system, and that transportation system creates jobs in the Northwest," he said.
The state ferry system carries about 26 million riders each year to 20 terminals in Washington and British Columbia. The ferries can carry up to 2,500 passengers per trip, depending on the type of boat.
Inslee, whose home is on Bainbridge Island, said he knows that delays would make commutes difficult.
"I've run down that ramp many times and been the last one on the boat," he said. "We wouldn't want to lose that convenience."
Inslee said he is confident the Coast Guard recognized some of its proposals were too extreme and will strike a balance between security and ease of transportation.
"I think the Coast Guard got the message after the last discussion," he said. "I think we will end up with rules that do both."
The Coast Guard last fall came up with "a laundry list" of possible new rules, Patterson said, ranging from measures that are essentially in place now to the most extreme case of searching every car.
The new rules will take effect on an interim basis as soon as they come out. The Coast Guard will take public comments until November. Then, the rules will be final, but they won't be fully enforced until July 1, 2004.
Patterson said it's likely that only in the event of a "red alert," the absolute highest terrorism threat alert provided by the Homeland Security Department, would every car and passenger be checked. Officials say that process could take up to two hours for each ferry trip.
Since its inception in March 2002, the Homeland Security Department's color-coded terrorism alert system has never gone to red alert.
It has reached an "orange alert," which means a "high risk," four times, most recently for 10 days after terrorists struck in Saudi Arabia and Morocco on May 20. Seventy-five people were killed, including eight Americans.
The alert has been at yellow, or "elevated risk," and never gone to the lowest two levels.
Larkin Van Horn, an artist from Clinton who rides the ferry to Mukilteo up to three times a week, said heightened security since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks doesn't make her feel safer.
"I don't believe it," she said. "They're taking this way too far. When it's our time to go, it's our time."
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