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Kitsap Transit may save foot-ferry service

If Kitsap County residents come up with the money, Kitsap Transit may rescue passenger-only ferry service within two years – including the much-discussed fast-ferry service from Kingston to downtown Seattle.

Kitsap Transit has dusted off a plan that would put five small but fast boats on the Bremerton run, then put the two existing fast boats on the Kingston run.

“If we can get this on the ballot in November, we could actually begin the service in as little as two years,” Kitsap Transit Director Dick Hayes this week.

Bainbridge Island has been a staunch supporter of direct ferry service from Kingston to downtown Seattle, believing that such a run could ease highway traffic by attracting substantial numbers of the Kitsap peninsula commuters that now drive to the Bainbridge terminal.

Earlier this week, Washington State Ferries chief Mike Thorne told the state Transportation Commission that passenger-only ferry service from Bremerton and Vashon Island to downtown Seattle will end after June 15, part of a plan to save $6 million a year.

It’s not the first time Kitsap Transit has considered taking on foot-ferry service. WSF officials warned the State Transportation Commission it would discontinue passenger-only ferry service in July 2000, after losing the value-based car tab tax as a significant funding source in the wake of Initiative 695 approval.

Kitsap Transit put a plan together then to replace the highly popular passenger boats. But the Legislature came up with some money, and fares were increased, to keep the passenger-only ferries running a little longer.

“We’ve been through all of this before after Initiative 695 was approved,” Hayes said. “This passenger-only ferry plan is actually a three-year-old plan that has been updated and revised.”

The plan calls for as many as 15 vessels, each carrying 149 passengers. Four would operate on the Bremerton-Seattle run, leaving every 15 minutes – a schedule that would provide greater capacity than the two 350-passenger boats on the run.

Key to the Bremerton program is running the small boats as fast as 40 knots. Because of their size, Hayes believes they could run fast through Rich Passage without generating the beach-damaging wake that has forced the present boats to slow substantially in that area.

The existing two boats would move to the Kingston-Seattle run, an open-water passage where they could operate at their 39-knot top speed.

The overriding issue may be money. Buying the boats and renovating the terminals could cost as much as $45 million for the Kitsap County portions of the service, according to Kitsap Transit’s plan, which also calls for substantial participation from King County.

The plan assumes a significant federal and state contribution, leaving some $18 million to $24 million to be raised locally. Hayes envisions a combination of a sales-tax boost of one-third to one-half cent per dollar, and a local vehicle-excise tax of one-third of 1 percent of a vehicle’s value. Both measures would require voter approval.

Fares will also be significantly more expensive than passengers pay on the auto ferries – round-trip costs are projected to range from $8 to $11.

When Hayes vetted the plan two years ago, both WSF and the Inland Boatman’s Union objected strenuously. This time, though, Hayes thinks those objections will disappear.

“I’ve talked extensively with Dave (Frieboth, union president), and they are coming to realize that this will save jobs in the long run,” Hayes said.

And the WSF’s Thorne is openly encouraging.

“Washington State Ferries stands ready to assist King and Kitsap County leaders should they choose to pursue future passenger-only ferry service,” Thorne said.

“I remain a firm believer in the concept of ferries as transit and in the role passenger-only ferries play in Puget Sound. Although we will no longer be a player in this service, we will support public and private effort to make passenger-only service a reality in the future.”

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