MUKILTEO — For many, the new ferry terminal here has been a source of excitement — a new building dedicated to honoring Coast Salish tribal history, a new overhead ramp for walk-on passengers and a new, unobstructed view of Puget Sound.
But for those with limited mobility, the terminal has aggravated existing challenges. Navigating it has been, in some cases, a frustrating experience.
Although the former ferry terminal and loading system was far from perfect for the disabled community, advocates feel not enough thought went into improving the problems with the new $187 million terminal.
Heather Mayhugh is a South Whidbey Island resident who transports senior citizens and people with disabilities to appointments on the mainland through her business, WI Drive. Over the past year and a half, she has given 550 rides to people traveling the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry route nearly every day with her wheelchair van named Cookie.
Lately, the hubbub at the Mukilteo ferry terminal has only gotten worse with summer in full swing. Long lines during rush hour have become the norm as the nice weather persists.
And with the new terminal’s layout of seven 700-foot, narrow loading lanes, finding a space to safely unload her wheelchair-bound passengers who need to use the restroom — located far away — has become a challenge for Mayhugh. The lanes are tightly spaced, packing cars together like sardines.
“Basically, it feels like they trapped us like cattle and there’s no way to get out of that,” Mayhugh said.
Her wheelchair van has a ramp that unloads from the side, which means she needs an outer lane or no other cars in adjacent lanes for a passenger to leave her vehicle and access the restroom.
Under federal law, new construction — such as the Mukilteo ferry terminal — has to be fully accessible as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Mayhugh said having the ADA-compliant restrooms isn’t enough. Washington State Ferries should also provide a way for passengers with disabilities to access them. The terminal’s restrooms are placed at the front of the loading lanes.
“If you’re in the back of the lane, it’s a long haul to get to the restroom,” Mayhugh said.
Karen Jordan, one of Mayhugh’s clients, was in a wheelchair while her foot was recovering from surgery.
“I’m 80 years old. I’ve had both of my knees replaced. It’s a hike,” she said of the distance to the restrooms.
Diane Rhodes, the public information officer for the Mukilteo ferry terminal project, said ticket sellers will direct cars that need the extra space to lane one, which is designated as the terminal’s ADA-accessible lane. The lane is 12 feet wide, compared to the others, which are either 9 or 10 feet wide.
But on a busy day, Mayhugh has found that the ADA lane fills up faster than she can get to it.
“The key is communication with the ticket sellers and explaining that they need access to the bathroom,” Rhodes said. “But it’s never 100%. That route is one of our busiest.”
In some cases, the ticket sellers have directed Mayhugh to the front of another empty lane, but it hasn’t always been a fool-proof solution. In some cases, a lane that a ticket seller thought was empty turns out not to be, and Mayhugh’s clients are unable to leave her vehicle to go to the restroom.
In other cases, to get closer to the restroom, Mayhugh has had to pull up in front of the loading lanes, stopping traffic, which has caused something of a spectacle.
“Some people aren’t embarrassed and they don’t care, but some other people don’t want the entire world watching this person unload and go to the bathroom,” she said. “I realize in the big scheme of things that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you’ve got an exhausted person going through stuff, they want their privacy just as much as anyone else.”
Stuart Peeples, another one of Mayhugh’s clients, said that accessing the restroom, either at the terminal or on the ferry itself, has become such a conundrum that he has learned to purposely dehydrate and starve himself hours before boarding a ferry.
“I just plan accordingly, for instance not drink as much fluid or food before going on the ferry,” he said. “But that doesn’t help me because I get ‘hangry’ and minor dehydration, which makes the experience that much less pleasurable.”
Accessing restrooms on the boats themselves can also be a challenge.
Peeples said he has observed that the elevator on the ferry hasn’t worked three out of four times within a two-month period.
Jordan said that she has noticed the elevator on the ferry has been slow-moving, often taking several minutes to make its way down to the car deck and then back up to the main cabin.
In addition, Mayhugh and others have raised concerns about the ferry system’s medical preferential loading program. The majority of her riders qualify for the program, which allows people with serious medical conditions or those undergoing surgery to board the next immediate ferry leaving the dock instead of waiting in long lines.
However, about half of the time, Mayhugh said, ferry workers at the terminal haven’t registered the passes, or there has been some other error that has prevented the pass from working. Her clients must have the pass on hand, but the ferry workers also need a copy at each terminal and at the ferry system’s main office.
For Peeples, the pass has worked once out of four to six times during the past two years.
“The doctor’s office doesn’t know how to do it, and I have to explain it, or it’s been faxed too late in the game to make use of it,” he said.
Mayhugh said there have been several times when her clients’ doctors have no idea what the pass is or how it works.
There has also been at least one instance when she knew the pass was faxed from the doctor’s office to the ferry system, but the ferry workers did not have it on hand by the time she and her client arrived at the terminal.
“It’s stressful for these people who are riding with me,” she said. “It shouldn’t be an issue.”
Dana Sawyers, the coordinator for the Whidbey Veterans Resource Center, said she has noticed some of the same issues.
The resource center has transported veterans to over 50 appointments in 2021 at the Seattle Veterans Administration Medical Center.
“It surprises me that they didn’t put an emergency access lane on both sides,” she said of the terminal’s design.
She suggested that it’s not too late for the lanes to be repainted and for there to be one less lane, which would allow for distance between each lane.
A lot of health organizations, she said, don’t have the administrative support to easily complete two separate medical preferential passes for each ferry terminal.
“I think we need to put the pressure on the ferry system to accommodate elderly and disabled people,” Sawyers said. “I think the ferry system accommodating the fact that not everyone is a tourist or commuter is really important. You’ve got fragile people who have had a really long day.”
In her mind, the solution would be that the vehicle itself should have priority boarding status as a medical transport program.
Mayhugh said that Susan Driver, the Island County transportation planner, helped reach out to an ADA accessibility coordinator with the ferry system on her behalf about getting a special placard or sticker for her vehicle that would easily alert workers about its need for ADA accommodations, such as restroom accessibility.
The response was less than satisfying — no such identification can be issued, and accommodations can’t always be made for wheelchair-bound passengers.
“It was a frustrating message to get back,” Driver said. “We support what Heather’s doing and hope that we can overcome this hurdle.”
Stephanie Cirkovich, director of community services and planning for Washington State Ferries, said the ferry system may not be able to completely accommodate someone who has both a medical preferential load pass and a request for an ADA accommodation, such as someone in a wheelchair requesting to be near an elevator.
“It’s very situation-dependent, but we do try to accommodate everyone as best as we can,” she said in an email. “It’s worth pointing out that we do ask med pref customers to show up a little early to the terminal for exactly these reasons. It’s much easier to accommodate all requests the sooner we know about them and before the vessel has been completely loaded.”
But with Seattle traffic, Mayhugh pointed out, arriving early for a Whidbey-bound sailing can be difficult and hard to predict.
Cirkovich did agree that the medical preferential load program is due for some revision.
A study completed by students at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington highlights ways in which the program could be improved, such as creating a digital format of the program’s forms.
In addition, the study’s authors recommend having a centralized location within the ferry system to fax the pass to, versus three different locations.
According to the study, the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry route has historically had the most medical preferential pass users out of any other route, from 2006 to 2020.
The Whidbey Island population is among the oldest in the state on average.
Cirkovich said the ferry system plans to implement as many of the recommendations from the report as is feasible, but it won’t be an overnight transformation.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.