BREMERTON — Can you imagine an underwater tunnel that spans the Puget Sound, bringing cars from Kitsap County to Seattle? Could ferries carrying passenger vehicles in the Central Sound become obsolete?
One man believes the time for this idea has come.
In recent years, retired civil engineer Bob Ortblad has traveled to various parts of the world, including Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, where he has seen his share of subsea tunnels that move people and cars around to otherwise unconnected land masses.
“This got me thinking about a possible Puget Sound tunnel,” Ortblad said in a presentation to the Bremerton City Council on June 25.
A growing regional population combined with the major expense to replace, repair and upgrade the ferries that carry people and cars across Puget Sound will create some high costs, he said. And Ortblad believes a tunnel is a less expensive investment that provides greater access to jobs in Seattle for Kitsap residents.
The design Ortblad presented to the council calls for a tunnel starting from Smith Cove in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle. It would travel 3/4 of a mile beneath Magnolia Bluff and then below the waters of Puget Sound, emerging at Highway 305 on Bainbridge Island. From there, a parkway would bring the road across to Bremerton, ending at Highway 303.
Councilman Richard Huddy noted a parkway going through Bainbridge Island is “probably DOA” from a political standpoint, but could be solved by continuing the tunnel underneath Bainbridge to Bremerton with an exit surfacing along the way.
Ortblad argues that the ferries, while iconic, are economically inefficient and the funding of ferries through subsidization is unsustainable. He pointed to the Martha’s Vineyard ferry, a nine-mile trip that costs $137 for a round trip. The cost is much higher because fares cover 100 percent of operation and capital costs. Comparatively, a ride to and from Seattle with a standard vehicle costs about $37.
According to his presentation, the Washington State Ferries will have to replace 13 ferries in its fleet between 2019 and 2040 based on the assumption of a 60-year lifespan. A tunnel would save $3.6 billion in ferry operations and new construction, Ortblad said.
Tunnels can move six times the number of cars to and from Seattle, Ortblad said. And while there could certainly be congestion during rush hour, a tunnel would cut down on delays and millions of commuter hours when factoring in weather and tidal delays along with time spent waiting for the ferry and the necessity to get in early during the peak commuting times.
Fast ferries could remain in place to move foot passengers from Kingston, Bainbridge Island and Bremerton to Seattle, the retired engineer said.
Ortblad used the Ryfylke Tunnel in Norway as a comparison. That tunnel consists of two tubes, is 8.9 miles long, runs 950 feet deep below the water while crossing multiple islands. It cost $416 million to construct. The smaller, single-tube Eysturoy tunnel in the Faroe Islands is seven miles long and cost $180 million.
With the amount of money Sound Transit and the state is investing in public infrastructure over the next 50 years, Ortblad said even if the price tag of a tunnel is $1 billion, it’s a relatively modest cost by comparison and could have profound positive effects.
The Central Sound ferries could be moved to other routes to improve service and cut down the number of boats necessary to operate at full capacity. Fewer boats would mean a reduced environmental impact on Puget Sound through less air and noise pollution, and valuable waterfront property could be redeveloped or turned into parkland.
Ortblad hopes to get this presentation in front of the Puget Sound Regional Council, a multi-regional consortium charged with prioritizing transportation and growth management planning and projects in Kitsap, Pierce, King and Snohomish counties. He is seeking an endorsement from the Bremerton City Council to boost the proposal’s credentials. The council will discuss such an endorsement at another meeting.
Council members suggested that, while the plan was not perfect, it was intriguing. Some suggested that many people live in Kitsap County as an alternative to the congestion and traffic on the east side of the Sound. Indeed, Kitsap County offers a quieter, slower pace of living than does Seattle and its suburbs, and it draws people looking for a mix of more rural and suburban areas. There is also the matter of getting local governments on board with the proposed tunnels and bridges, which would admittedly be problematic.
Ortblad noted, however, that Kitsap County has room to grow. Kitsap’s main urban areas are roughly equal in size to Seattle’s, but they have one-sixth of its population. In previous presentations to the Washington State Transportation Board and the Kitsap County Council, Ortblad said most of the questions he received focused on traffic.
Ortblad’s full presentation can be found online as part of the agenda packet for the meeting here or at BremertonWA.gov/CouncilAgenda, then click on the link under “packet” for the June 25 special meeting.
— Mark Krulish is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. He can be reached at email@example.com.