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New wave swelling behind foot ferries

An Aqua Express ferry which ran from Kingston to Seattle in 2005. - Photo courtesy of Aqua Express
An Aqua Express ferry which ran from Kingston to Seattle in 2005.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Aqua Express

Communities around Puget Sound are riding a crest of interest.

On a sunny day at the Port of Kingston, the tops of Seattle buildings can be seen protruding teasingly above the Ballard skyline.

Teasing for north Kitsap commuters who use the Edmonds ferry and transit to reach downtown jobs each day, or navigate gridlock on Highway 305 to shuffle onto the Bainbridge ferry.

And teasing for Port Manager Mike Bookey, who knows that nearly everything is in place to offer a commuter foot ferry service from Kingston to Seattle.

“We’ve got the parking, we have the dock and we have the infrastructure,” Bookey said. “We just don’t have the boats.”

The Port of Kingston is one of several Puget Sound entities pushing a wave of renewed interest in regional passenger ferries.

Last spring, King County formed a property tax-supported ferry district to run foot ferry service to Vashon Island and a water taxi across Elliott Bay.

Kitsap Transit is looking to restore passenger service from Seattle to Bremerton using a low-wake prototype boat.

In Port Townsend, the Chamber of Commerce and the citizen group “Seattle2PT” are lobbying for a year-round ferry route after experiencing an economic boon from Washington State Ferries’ temporary winter passenger service.

In Kitsap County, efforts have reorganized since voters twice rejected proposals to use an increased sales tax to pay for added passenger ferry service, most recently last February.

Along with opposing the use of taxpayer money, critics questioned whether the passenger ferries would really benefit the environment or would simply promote urban sprawl west of Puget Sound.

While unpopular in Bremerton, Port Orchard and central Kitsap, the measure was supported on Bainbridge, Kingston and communities to the north.

Island proponents believe Bainbridge could benefit from expanded passenger service if commuters from the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsula chose to avoid the island bottleneck in favor of other walk-on services elsewhere.

Rep. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge said a confluence of events, including the availability of federal funding for transportation and new local leadership, has led to the varied new plans for passenger service.

Puget Sound’s expanding population will only add to the need, she said.

“As the region grows, it will demand the growth of passenger ferries.”

Rolfes has sponsored a bill that will clear the way for the Port of Kingston and other port districts to operate foot ferries.

Under state law, only port districts on lakes and rivers are allowed to operate passenger service, but Rolfe’s proposed legislation would extend that authority to Puget Sound ports as well.

The House passed the bill unanimously, and it is now being reviewed by the Senate Transportation Committee.

Even if that authority is granted, the Port of Kinsgton will face another hurdle when it comes to funding.

It is banking on a U.S. Department of Transportation grant of $3.5 million, received through a regional Urban Partnership Agreement, to pay a large chunk of its $4.7 million capital startup costs.

Kitsap Transit received a similar grant for $2 million.

But the agreement stipulates that the state must implement tolling on the State Route 520 bridge by Sept. 30, 2009, or else all the grants will be revoked. A toll is expected to be approved by the Legislature and the governor, but it remains to be seen whether the program could be implemented in time to meet the grant deadline.

“For us it’s probably a year away before all the dust settles and we know where we’re at,” Bookey said.

The Port of Kingston would use a mix of federal and state grants to pay for startup costs, but unlike most passenger ferry plans, it believes its service can eventually pay for itself through fare revenue.

If its foot ferry ambitions emerge from the legislative session unscathed, the Port hopes to buy two 80- to 100-passenger vessels.

Most likely in 2010 the boats would begin delivering an estimated 80 daily round-trip passengers on the 35-minute route from Kingston to Pier 51 in Seattle. For starters, the boats only make a morning and afternoon run.

Based on projected growth in the area, the Port believes that ridership would blossom to 200 in four years, allowing the service to break even on operating costs, assuming passengers are willing to pay a $14 average fare.

One Kingston to Seattle passenger service has already flopped. In January 2005, the Aqua Express company began shuttling North Kitsap commuters on a 94-foot passenger former WSF vessel.

The company called it quits in October of the same year, citing high fuel prices, and lower than expected fare revenue.

Bookey said the Port plans to avoid those pitfalls by easing into service with limited runs, using smaller more fuel efficient boats and charging higher fares.

“We have to stretch our dollars as far as we can,” he said.

Kitsap Transit recently approved plans to begin a tax credit program to supplement federal grant money and pay for a spare boat for its Port Orchard to Bremerton passenger route and a low-wake ferry for cross-sound service.

The agency plans to buy a prototype boat developed through a state-commissioned study on shoreline impacts of fast ferries.

The state was sued in 1998 by shoreline residents along Rich Passage, including Bainbridge, who claimed wakes from WSF passenger ferries were damaging shorelines.

In Port Townsend proponents of a passenger service are lobbying for either a WSF route from Seattle, like the one that went into temporary service in January, or a weekend lease of a commuter ferry like the one proposed by the Port of Kingston.

Tim Caldwell, manager of the Port Townsend Chamber of Commerce, said the popularity of the temporary Seattle route, which brought relief to Peninsula businesses when the Keystone route was suspended, proves that the demand for the service is there. He believes visitors would be willing to pay much higher fares than the $6.70 charged by WSF.

“Everyone loved the service and the price (WSF) charged,” Caldwell said. “We even feel that we could triple that and charge up to $20 to help cover much of the operating cost.”

While regional passenger ferry plans steam ahead, critics say many of the issues raised when the Kitsap ballot proposals were voted down have gone unresolved.

Bainbridge resident Sharon Gilpin, a leading opponent of the sales tax proposals, said the boats are a good means of transport in theory. But she wants to see a more methodical approach and the development of more efficient, clean burning vessels.

“They say we’re putting ‘x’ number of cars off the road, which is always theoretical,” she said. “In the end it may not be that you’re really saving air quality or fuel or any of those things.”

Gilpin also believes public funds should be focused on expanding existing transit and addressing the looming financial needs of WSF rather than unproven passenger service plans.

“You can’t just use grants and shuffle money around and in nine years say ‘Oops, we blew it,” Gilpin said. “As a person who has lived here for 16 years, I would like to see WSF fixed.”

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