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Foot ferries: How should Bainbridge vote?

Fast and frequent ferry service to downtown Seattle would put much of the rest of Kitsap County on an equal footing with Bainbridge Island, proponents say, boosting economic development while reducing traffic pressures on the island.

“There’s a lot at stake here for Bainbridge Island – whether this will be a place to live or a terminal city for the ferry,” said Alice Tawresey, who co-chairs an effort to promote Kitsap Transit’s fast-ferry plan.

But opponents see the plan as risky and speculative, one that could stick county taxpayers with enormous liabilities and very few benefits.

“This is a very ambitious plan that depends on state and federal revenues that may not materialize,” said Fort Ward resident Sharon Gilpin, who formed Citizens for Affordable Transit to campaign against the measure. “Kitsap County voters may be the sole source of funds for an experimental process.”

At issue is a plan under which Kitsap Transit would establish passenger-only ferry links to downtown Seattle from Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth.

The service would use 149-passenger boats, and would offer departures every 15 minutes during rush hour and hourly during the remainder of the day. Round-trip fare would be $9.

Washington State Ferries had offered fast-boat service from Bremerton and Southworth on 350-passenger boats, but terminated the Bremerton service in September because of high costs. The Legislature provided money to continue fast-boat service from Vashon for another year.

The Kitsap Transit plan depends on voter approval of a motor-vehicle tax of $30 per $10,000 in vehicle value and a three-tenths of one percent sales-tax hike.

The question will be on the Nov. 4 general-election ballot. Mail-in ballots, requested by 70 percent of the island’s voters, will be sent out beginning Oct. 15.

Tawresey said she believes there are two principal sources of opposition – those who oppose tax increases in general, and Rich Passage residents worried about environmental damage from the wakes.

She claims general sympathy with the no-tax position, but says the foot-ferry plan is worth the cost.

“Government should only do for people what they can’t do for themselves, but transit is one of those things,” said Tawresey.

“There is no form of transportation that isn’t heavily subsidized. Vehicles drive on government-built roads, airlines are subsidized and use government-built airports. People who think we can have transportation systems without government subsidies are engaged in magical thinking.”

The wake problem, which prompted a class-action lawsuit that led to a court-ordered slowdown of the Bremerton-bound ferries through Rich Passage, is a legitimate problem, she said, but one with no tidy solution.

“People have a right to be concerned about damage to their bulkheads, and the loss of peace and quiet,” she said. “But there would be as much or more opposition to a four-lane highway or to a bridge.”

She says improved passenger-boat service is the only realistic way to reduce congestion on Highway 305, and the best way to promote economic development in areas of the county other than Bainbridge.

“Bainbridge is so attractive and has attracted so many riders because of the optimum level of service – a 30-minute ride to downtown Seattle,” she said. “If that service can be offered to other destinations, many people will choose not to come to the Bainbridge ferry terminal, which will forestall the need to expand the highway to four lanes.”

While some critics of the plan have disagreed with the economic-development rationale, fearing higher housing prices and the detriments that might come from increased county population, Gilpin is not among them.

“I’m in favor of passenger ferries,” she said, “but I’m going to vote against this plan because I don’t think it has been well thought out, and there are too many unanswered questions.”

The plan could cost as much as $250 million over 10 years, she said.

And while much of that money is expected to come from state and federal grants, she is dubious about whether this area, represented in Congress by Democrats Jay Inslee and Norm Dicks, can bring home the federal money.

“We’re a D(emocratic) state during an R(epublican) administration, and in real life, that makes a difference,” she said.

She is leery of the fact that the boats Kitsap Transit plans to buy haven’t yet been built, and that the agency plans to do the necessary research to design prototypes after the election.

“I’m a political consultant for Democrats, and I’m not against taxes or against the government,” she said, “but I don’t think governments do research and development very well. I’d rather see a private entity handle that aspect of it.”

She questions the potential for reducing traffic on the highway, saying that most of the cars parked in the ferry terminal lots belong to islanders.

A better approach, Gilpin said, would be running fast ferries to Kingston on a trial basis – perhaps done by a private operator, rather than Kitsap Transit – as a way of testing the assumptions behind the plan.

And she takes issue with the notion that taxes should be raised on everyone to benefit workers commuting to Seattle, for higher wages, and whose time is valuable enough to make the cost of a foot ferry worthwhile.

“This is luxury ferry service,” she said.

“I can’t see spending this money on a service that would benefit only 1.5 percent of the population, instead of spending that money on something like schools.”

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