Though charming, ferries bring traffic congestionRidership to increase 37 percent by 2030
The following article is the fourth in an eight-part series produced by The Beacon on transportation in Snohomish County. The series focuses on the issues surrounding travel by plane, ferry, bus, rail and cars, as well as the local and state efforts to fix them. –Ed.
While the ferries in Mukilteo and Edmonds add charm to local travel, they’re often a cause for headaches due to traffic which, according to projections, could get much worse within the next 15 years.
The mayors for each city laid out the pros and cons of ferry hubs: While ferries offer much-needed transportation connections across the Puget Sound, they are also cause for traffic complications.
“The ferry is an important symbol for Mukilteo,” Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson said. “When someone asks me where Mukilteo is, I tell them it’s where you can catch the ferry to Whidbey Island.
“It’s picturesque to see ferries coming and going, and it brings a lot of people through our community but, at the same time, it’s tough to deal with all the traffic.”
Washington State Ferries operates 10 ferry routes, including two in Snohomish County: The Mukilteo-Clinton run and the Edmonds-Kingston run.
The Mukilteo route connects SR-525 from the mainland to Whidbey Island, which crosses in 15 minutes, whereas the Edmonds route continues SR-104 to the Kitsap Peninsula, a 30-minute run.
Mukilteo and Edmonds are practically tied as the state’s busiest ferry routes. Though Edmonds’ numbers are slightly higher, both runs carry about 2 million vehicles and about 4 million passengers each year.
According to the Washington State Ferries Long-Range Plan, projections show that ridership numbers for all ferry routes will increase 37 percent over the next 15 years; however, numbers are actually down 13 percent since its peak in 1999.
In 2010, total ridership from Kingston to Edmonds during the 3-7 p.m. commute – the peak time – was estimated at 2,450 passengers. There were 1,340 vehicles and 390 walk-ons. Eastbound ridership is expected to increase 13 percent to 2,780 passengers by 2030, with 1,380 vehicles and 670 walk-ons.
From Edmonds to Kingston, ridership was estimated at 1,010 passengers in 2010. There were 650 vehicles and 70 walk-ons. Westbound ridership is expected to increase 41 percent by 2030, with 880 vehicles and 100 walk-ons.
Total ridership from Clinton to Mukilteo in 2010 during the 3-7 p.m. commute time was estimated at 2,110 passengers. There were 1,050 vehicles and 510 walk-ons. Eastbound ridership is expected to increase 29 percent to 2,720 passengers by 2030, with 1,160 vehicles and 910 walk-ons.
From Mukilteo to Clinton, ridership during the afternoon commute was estimated at 1,010 passengers in 2010. There were 670 vehicles and 30 walk-ons. Westbound ridership is expected to increase 30 percent to 1,310 passengers by 2030, with 880 vehicles and 40 walk-ons.
WSF has plans to invest $4.9 billion in the ferry system through 2030 to prepare for these increases, including projects to improve terminals and replace its fleet. As of this year, $759.3 million has been invested so far.
While the Edmonds landing is about 20 years old, Mukilteo’s is 60 years old and state officials decided it needs to be torn down and replaced. A new terminal is expected to cost $129 million.
“The Edmonds terminal does not need a makeover at this time,” WSF spokesperson Broch Bender said, adding that Edmonds is equipped for overhead passenger loading. “The terminal building was replaced and over-water improvements were made during the mid-1990s.”
There are plans to design and construct a new ferry terminal in Mukilteo, one-third of a mile from the existing terminal. It is scheduled to open in 2019.
Mukilteo’s layout around the ferry makes it difficult for passengers to get in and out of the terminal, and contributes to traffic congestion and conflicts between vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, said Nicole McIntosh, WSF design engineering manager for the project.
The new terminal will improve operations, traffic flow and pedestrian safety, she said.
McIntosh said the project would also reduce the vehicle queue on SR-525 during peak times. A larger holding area would help keep waiting vehicles off local streets.
Its ferry layout may be better, but traffic issues often arise in Edmonds because it also serves as a rail hub: An average of 40 trains per day pass through the city, which blocks the flow of traffic at Dayton and Main streets for minutes at a time.
“The biggest looming issue is the number of trains that come through town,” Mayor Dave Earling said. “If a train comes through, the ferry has to stop loading and unloading because the trains take priority.
“The downside is that there are delays in making connections.”
While commuter trains may block traffic for a minute or two because they’re only 3-5 cars in length, coal and oil trains are about 110 cars long and can block access for up to seven minutes.
The number of trains in Edmonds is projected to double to 80 per day within the next 10 to 15 years.
“If you add up all the trains that come through town and add up the time, they probably shut down access for an hour and a half over a 24-hour period,” Earling said. “With the number of trains predicted in the future, that could increase to as many as four hours in a 24-hour period.
Though there’s ferry traffic, Mukilteo and Edmonds also offer connections to bus and train service near the ferry landings to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
Community Transit operates bus service to and from both downtowns, and Sound Transit provides train service through its Sounder commuter rail route to Seattle.
“It’s an important link for the city,” Earling said. “There’s really the potential for what we call a multimodal center. We have that right down where the ferry is, where the Sounder train comes in and the buses come in.
“For example, if people live on the other side, they can come across on the ferry, get on a bus or get on the train, and go to Seattle.”
In addition to their multimodal capabilities, Earling said the ferries also serve as a draw for tourists. Many visitors to Snohomish County want to include a trip on the ferry to their vacations.
If 500 vehicles drive on and off the Edmonds ferry, he said an estimated 50 of them will stop at a local business.
“Especially this time of year, we have tourists come to town continually to shop in town or eat here in town,” he said. “It has a very positive financial impact for the community.”
However, Gregerson said Mukilteo doesn’t see as many passengers stop in the city.
“A lot of people use the terminal to commute, and it’s unlikely that they’re stopped for too long in the community,” she said.
“I’m hopeful that the new terminal will encourage people to stay and visit Mukilteo more often than they seem to do now.”