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July 27, 2023

New flagship ferry terminal restores salmon habitat, honors tribal history

  • The project includes a 6-acre containment cap covering harmful sediments.
    WSF Communications


    For Washington State Ferries, replacing the aging and seismically vulnerable ferry terminal on the Seattle waterfront while maintaining service for two busy ferry routes has been a logistical feat since construction began in 2017. A delicate choreography of shifting passenger vehicles to nearby Pier 48 to free up space in the holding lanes for cranes, crews, machinery, and heavy construction work.

    All this while keeping ferries safely running to Bainbridge Island and Bremerton as ferry traffic steadily ticks up to pre-COVID levels. But this new ferry terminal isn't only for the benefit of the millions of ferry riders who use it each year. It includes elements to honor the tribes whose ancestors lived on these Salish Sea shores and fished its waters. And it's helping to restore vital salmon habitat near the Elliott Bay seawall.


    Built and opened in stages, the $489 million Colman Dock project features a new passenger building — opened in November 2022 — a new concrete and steel trestle, entry building along Alaskan Way, and an elevated pedestrian walkway, the latter two opening in late July or early August. The gleaming new buildings are the most visible part of the project. But outside along Alaskan Way more quiet changes are taking place.

    Photos from WSF [enlarge]
    The old terminal, pictured in June 2017, faced away from the water. It was dark and crowded. Old creosote-treated timber piles, some dating from the early 1900s, were replaced by 500 steel and concrete piles.

    The new terminal, pictured in June 2023, faces the water to the west and downtown Seattle to the east. North of the terminal (to the right), a bulkhead was removed and crews cleaned up the area, opening 180 linear feet of shoreline.

    North of the terminal where a bulkhead once sat is now 180 linear feet of open shoreline. Contractors removed 15,600 tons of fill material over the water and replaced it with 30,000 tons of clean sandy gravel and loose rock 2 feet deep. This containment cap covers 6 acres of sediments, which included metals and other things harmful to humans and the environment. Capping it this way prevents these sediments from spreading.

    The open shoreline is a visual breathing space of sorts on a crowded waterfront popular with locals and tourists. Catch the best view of it from the balcony of the new entry building or along Alaskan Way.

    The project also replaced the old timber trestle portion of the dock with a new concrete and steel trestle. Removing the old timber pilings — some believed to date back to 1910 when Colman Dock was first built — also removed 7,500 tons of creosote from the water. Creosote is a cocktail of harmful chemicals that continually leach into the water, harming marine life.

    “Rebuilding the terminal allowed WSF to improve the nearshore marine habitat along a highly developed shoreline and leave a functionally better habitat in a biologically active zone,” said Marsha Tolon, WSF environmental and permitting lead.

    Minimizing overwater coverage to allow marine plants and animals to thrive was a goal in the project. The new trestle increased the overwater footprint by approximately 5,550 square feet. To mitigate for it, we removed 5,590 square feet of an old trestle and piles from nearby Pier 48.


    WSF consults with federally recognized tribes that have treaty rights where our projects are located. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Suquamish Tribe have treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather on the waters of Elliott Bay. We are working with both tribes to showcase work from their artists that tell their stories in creative ways throughout the site.

    Inside the passenger building, three scaled-down versions of traditional tribal canoes from Suquamish artist Kate Ahvakana will hang in the space for waiting passengers to enjoy. Work from Muckleshoot tribal artists will be installed on the main entry doors to the terminal building to welcome visitors, as is tribal custom.

    “We are working with talented Suquamish and Muckleshoot artists who are creating pieces with tribal cultural motifs to adorn this new space and remind visitors of the tribes' continuing presence here,” said WSF tribal liaison Phillip Narte.

    Coming soon, storyboards featuring tribal history and photos will line public areas such as the new elevated walkway and describe Coast Salish people, their life ways, and their continuing presence. These boards will include native Lushootseed language as much as possible to help keep the language alive in a place where it once flourished.

    Later this year, two new tribal-named plazas will open along Alaskan Way honoring Muckleshoot and Suquamish history. The Suquamish Tribe named the north plaza (near Columbia Street) Ê”uluÅ‚ali, meaning “a place of traveling water.” The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe named the south plaza (near Yesler Way) sluɁwiÅ‚, meaning “a perforation for a canoe, a short cut, a canoe pass.” Both plazas offer a place to sit, gather, and contemplate Coast Salish tribal history.


    The terminal building itself has 4,230 square feet of windows squarely facing the water and downtown Seattle — a vast improvement over the old cavernous terminal building that had a serious seating shortage. The design flips the building's orientation to take advantage of the views, adds more seating and space for future retail and food vendors, and gives people more room to spread out as they await the ferry. The entry building on Alaskan Way features two elevators and three staircases from the street level leading up to the elevated walkway and on to the passenger building.

    Work remains on the project. The new Marion Street pedestrian bridge, being built by the city of Seattle, will open later this year. Retail and food vendors will open in the entry building and outside on the elevated pedestrian walkway. When Alaskan Way construction wraps up, all ferry holding will be moved back to Colman Dock and a new passenger and ADA drop-off and pick-up area will open. Bike storage lockers and other amenities are also on the way.

    See the Seattle Multimodal Terminal at Colman Dock project website for more, at https://tinyurl.com/WSF-ColmanDock.

    Diane Rhodes specializes in construction communications for Washington State Ferries.

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