One of the biggest things to happen to commuting in the Seattle area since the travel coffee mug has lost a little of its excitement.
A new high-speed ferry that whisks commuters to and from Seattle has been forced by a judge to throttle back its four 650-horsepower water jets to a pokey 14 mph along one stretch because of complaints from homeowners that the boat's wake is tearing up the shoreline.
Some of the thousands of commuters who were thrilled with the speed and convenience of the Chinook are fuming.
"We're being held hostage by a handful of residents," grumbled Bob Sawade, who commutes from Bremerton to Seattle, where he works at a printing company.
The passenger-only Chinook, which debuted more than a year ago, is the $9.5 million star of the state's fleet and represents a big improvement over the 26 other ferries, many of which are crowded and occasionally break down as they lumber through western Washington's network of islands, inlets and channels at 20 mph.
Operating at a top speed of 39 mph, the Chinook was a nautical hot rod, shaving almost an hour off what was a two-hour round-trip journey on the heavily used Bremerton-Seattle route. And the Chinook did it in style: The twin-hulled, 143-foot vessel is a sleek, gleaming-white craft with plush upholstery and ample legroom. It carries 350 passengers.
But about 60 Kitsap County shoreline residents complained the Chinook produced a bigger, harsher wake that battered their beaches.
"When its waves hit the bulkhead it sounds like someone's hitting it with a baseball bat," said Jackie Rossworn, who lives along Rich Passage, a channel that at its narrowest point separates Bainbridge Island from the Kitsap Peninsula by only three-quarter of a mile. Homes along the Bainbridge Island side of the passage start at $500,000.
Rossworn and four other property owners filed a class action lawsuit against the state ferry system last spring. Superior Court Judge Glenna Hall ruled in their favor Aug. 13, marking the first time a vessel was made subject to the state Environmental Policy Act.
Hall ordered the Chinook to slow from 39 mph to 14 mph through Rich Passage--a six-mile segment of its 16-mile route--until an environmental review is conducted. The one-way trip takes 15 minutes longer.
Also, because the Chinook has to go more slowly, it can make only 11 one-way runs a day, instead of 17.
"I lost half an hour's wage today," Sawade complained. He said he thought was doing his part as a citizen by using mass transit, and "the minute they scream environmental impact, it stops."
"I have to get up earlier, and I have to shift my whole schedule. And in order to get everything done, I have to work at home," groused Bill Thaete, who works for Intel Corp. in Seattle.
The ferry system filed an emergency request with the state Supreme Court for a stay of Hall's ruling but was turned down on Monday.
The ruling could mean up to two years of slower service while the environmental review is conducted, said Patricia Patterson, spokesman for Washington State Ferries.
Rossworn said the 15-minute slowdown is a small price to protect the beach, which is framed by towering conifers and the Olympic mountains. A photo of her property from the late 1980s shows a sandy strip fringed with pebbles and seaweed. Now the sand is just about gone, and the beach is mostly rocks.
"Beaches do change a bit. That's the nature of things," Rossworn said. "But the crabs were leaving, shellfish and little shrimp and those types of things, and kelp beds were getting buried."
Homeowners wrote to the ferry system last summer about the problem but were told the Chinook was not the culprit. Bill Williams, a lawyer for the ferry system, said an engineer hired by the state concluded the erosion was probably caused by natural phenomena.
Another high-speed ferry, the Snohomish, will join the Chinook on the run this fall. But it could be months before it gets to open the throttle wide, if ever.
The ferry system is hoping new technology, such as foils that lift the ferry higher in the water and produce less wake, will provide a quicker solution.