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Transit makes ferry pitch

With legislative authorization likely, Kitsap Transit brought its campaign to take over fast-ferry service to Bainbridge Thursday as Executive Director Dick Hayes pitched the plan to the Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon.

His argument: It’s us or nobody.

And while the plan would require Kitsap County voters to raise their own taxes, Hayes doesn’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility.

“Kitsap is the only county in Washington other than King that has voted in favor of transit taxes,” Hayes said.

Under the plan, Kitsap voters will be asked in September or November to pony up an additional three cents per $10 in sales tax, and pay a motor vehicle excise tax of three-tenths of 1 percent – $60 to relicense a $20,000 car.

Washington State Ferries announced earlier this year that it would terminate current foot-ferry service from Bremerton, Southworth and Vashon Island to downtown Seattle because the service can’t be offered economically.

Kitsap Transit’s plan would restore runs from Bremerton and Southworth to downtown Seattle, and would add service from Kingston, which has frequently been proposed but has never materialized. A Kingston-Seattle connection is said to be critical to Bainbridge, because that access would reduce traffic from North Kitsap to the Winslow ferry terminal.

Kitsap Transit says it could also offer service from Vashon to downtown Seattle, but only if King County comes up with the money. Cost of the Vashon service is not factored into the proposal that will go to Kitsap voters.

The proposal calls for KT to buy a fleet of 14, 149-passenger boats at $2 to $2.5 million each. Boats would sail every 15 to 20 minutes during peak commuter hours, with hourly sailings during the day. The boats would be faster, lighter and cheaper than the 350-passenger boats currently being used, and, Hayes claims, would not generate beach-damaging wake.

Transit would not operate the boats, but instead would contract with a private company for that.

Fares would be significantly higher than either the foot ferries or the auto ferries presently charge for passengers – an estimated $9 to $10 per round trip. That would boost farebox recovery from the present 27 percent of operating costs to an estimated 40-50 percent, Hayes said.

“There is simply no way any of the private operators can buy this many boats given the present credit situation,” he said. “And there is no way any of them can do this without a subsidy of about 50 percent.”

Economic necessity has reduced the objections of the WSF unions, which vehemently opposed a KT fast-ferry plan two years ago because of certain proposed work rules, like part-time employees and split shifts.

“I think they see the writing on the wall,” Hayes said. “They have been working with us on this.”

Hayes said that if voters approve the plan, the boats can be ordered immediately after the election, and be ready for use the following fall.

The Washington State Legislature is currently advancing legislation that would permit KT to offer foot-ferry service. Some local legislators are also trying to find money to maintain the WSF service until KT could take over.

Hayes said he is not sure the transition measure would be beneficial in the long run. For one thing, without a break in service, any new operator might have to assume existing union contracts, which would not permit economic operation.

For another, he said, at least some voters will think that if the state finds money for temporary service preservation, it could, if it so desired, preserve the service altogether, without the local tax support.

“That was the difference between the first election we had to restore service cut by Initiative 695, which failed, and the second one, which passed.”

Even though Bainbridge would benefit only indirectly from the fast-ferry service, Hayes expressed confidence that the island would support the plan.

“Bainbridge was the difference in approving our last tax request,” he said. “And we would like to thank you for your continued support.”

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