Safety concerns mount at busy Fauntleroy ferry dock
By NATALIE JOHNSON
Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Reporter
September 30, 2011 · Updated 12:15 PM
Last Thursday afternoon Washington State Ferries (WSF) worker Lisa Lennon stood on the sidewalk at the end of the Fauntleroy ferry dock directing thick commuter traffic through the tollbooths, a job that until this summer was filled by a Washington State Patrol cadet.
In a move that caught commuters and even some lawmakers by surprise, state budget cuts in July forced the removal of the cadets who have directed traffic at both the tollbooths and the busy intersection at the end of the dock for years.
Lennon — who was transferred from the Colman dock in Seattle as part of WSF’s temporary solution for the loss of the cadets — used hand signals to quickly funnel drivers into the correct lanes. She sometimes pulled cars for certain ferries from farther up in the line and said that since the loss of the cadets, loading the boats seemed to go smoothly with her there during peak hours.
Unloading, however, is a different story.
On this same Thursday, without an officer to direct ferry traffic pulling onto Fauntleroy Way, the lines were long as drivers leaving the dock waited their turn to merge onto the sometimes busy street. Some drivers slipped quickly into the traffic; others hesitated, holding up the line. On one occasion, too many cars tried to crowd the intersection at once. One car quickly braked and traffic stalled for a several moments as a few cars laid on their horns.
WSF officials say the lack of an officer to direct traffic during peak hours so far hasn’t caused boats to run late. But they are worried about safety at the busy intersection and are actively searching for the funds to either reinstate the officers or install a traffic light there.
Doug Schlief, senior terminals manager for WSF, said the agency has been concerned ever since it found out the officers would be pulled. Schlief, who worked at the Fauntleroy terminal in the 1990s, said both car and pedestrian traffic have increased significantly at the intersection. More than 100 students now commute from Seattle to Vashon for school, he said, and many of them must make their way across Fauntleroy Avenue in the mornings and afternoons.
“There is more activity today,” he said. “When you add all that together, that’s what gives us concern.”
Many ferry riders and West Seattle drivers have taken notice of the change. Though some aren’t bothered by the lack of direction at the intersection, noting that sometimes it just takes longer to unload the boat, others are worried it’s an accident waiting to happen.
Paul Anderson, who commutes on the ferry from Port Orchard to West Seattle, said navigating the intersection at Fauntleroy was already tricky enough. One time before the officers were pulled but during a time when they weren’t stationed there, he witnessed an accident that occurred when two cars turning left tried to merge and hit each other. He worries a similar accident will eventually happen again without an authority at the end of the dock.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said.
Neal Philip, an attorney and commissioner on Vashon’s fire board who commutes to Seattle, says he’s extremely worried after a situation he witnessed earlier this month. Stopped in line with a good view of unloading traffic, he said he saw multiple near-accidents as offloading drivers quickly pulled out at breaks in traffic. Once a car on Fauntleroy had to hit its brakes to avoid hitting another car, he said.
Philip was so bothered that he sent a letter to WSF officials as well as several state and city lawmakers expressing his concern.
“I wanted to make sure somebody was actually doing something,” he said. “We need leadership to step up and say this is an immediate public safety issue. and we need to fix it now.”
State Sen. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), one of the legislators Philip wrote to, said she is aware of the situation and has been working with other lawmakers and WSF officials to find money for a replacement.
“I’m very concerned,” Nelson said. “In my opinion, this is a potential fatality waiting to happen.”
Nelson said she and others have been talking with WSF director David Moseley about a solution. But after lawmakers significantly trimmed the state transportation budget and ferry operating budget last legislative session, Nelson said, finding extra funds to fill the hole left by the officers is proving tricky. It’s especially hard to secure funds when the legislature isn’t in session, she added.
“I’m not happy this was imbedded in the (state) budget and the fact is it was. Trying to explore our options is difficult,” she said.
Nelson said she would prefer to put officers back at the intersection, an idea that isn’t off the table yet. But Schlief said the agency is also looking into the feasibility of installing a traffic light at the intersection, perhaps one controlled by the WSF. He said Moseley recently identified a Seattle engineer to discuss the project with.
“We kind of like that idea. We think it makes sense,” Schlief said, noting that the ferry-controlled traffic light in Edmonds has worked well there.
“It would be nice if we could give a green light to offloading traffic,” he said. “That would be ideal for us.”
The upfront costs of installing a traffic light would be much greater than hiring Washington State Patrol officers, Schlief said, and WSF may seek some city funds to support such a project. State ferry officials, however, have yet to discuss the idea with the city of Seattle, he added.
“To try to engage different funding is just a challenge all the way around,” he said.
The Fauntleroy neighborhood, meanwhile, has historically resisted the idea of a traffic light at the ferry dock.
Gary Dawson, the head of the Fauntleroy Ferry Advisory Committee, said traffic at the dock has been the main topic of conversation at recent Fauntleroy Community Association meetings.
While many who live and drive near the dock are now concerned about safety there, he said they also worry that a traffic light that gave priority to ferry traffic would cause congestion on Fauntleroy Avenue and surrounding roads and could delay buses.
“We’re not putting up road blocks to prevent progress, but we want to make sure any change in operation benefits both communities,” Dawson said.
Whether the answer is a traffic light or a return of officers, Dawson said, the Fauntleroy community believes the state should fund the solution, as the traffic is created by cars unloading state ferries.
Tom Rasmussen, a Seattle city councilmember, said he too has been in talks with WSF and other lawmakers about a long-term plan for the intersection and where the funds may come from during a time when state and local budgets are tight.
Rasmussen was open to the idea of a traffic light, but agreed with Dawson, saying the solution should be funded by the state.
“We are being proactive to come up with a plan,” he said. “But again we believe it is the state’s responsibility to manage the traffic, and we’ll work with them to be as helpful as we can.”
Contact Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber Reporter Natalie Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-463-9195.