Ferries still the ties that bind Puget Sound

Wanting answers as to why his preferred ferry service was being eliminated, Eilert Eliasen took his queries to Olympia, to no less an authority than the governor of Washington himself. The governor’s reply suggests that some things never change (including the studied blandness of official responses):

“The decision to abandon this service was made reluctantly, and only after exhaustive investigation and study... As the facts were developed, it became apparent that neither present nor prospective traffic justified continuation of the route.”

A portion of that letter from Gov. Arthur B. Langlie to Point White resident Eliasen was printed in the Review of June 7, 1951 – the week the state took over cross-sound ferry service, having purchased fleet and dock facilities from the Puget Sound Navigation Company for $4.94 million. An early casualty in the consolidation of operations was the Point White-Bremerton auto ferry, upon which many islanders relied for access to jobs and merchants on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Ironically, given more recent news, Eliasen’s preferred

service was replaced for a time by a passenger-only boat. But Kitsap residents now face the loss of the foot-ferry fleet itself, to be sacrificed next June to a bold new business plan unveiled by Washington State Ferries Director Mike Thorne. Under the so-called “5+5+5 plan,” Thorne hopes to cap fare hikes at

5 percent, and shore up operations through equal measures

new marketing/advertising and simple cost-cutting. First to be

jettisoned is the money-losing passenger-only service, opening the door for private entrepreneurs, in the unlikely event anyone can make it pencil out, or local transit agencies if they can drum up tax support.

And as reported Saturday, Kitsap Transit Director Dick Hayes has already answered the call, dusting off a three-year-old plan that would see numerous smaller, faster vessels on

an array of cross-sound connections. That would include a

long-coveted Kingston-Colman Dock route, convenient for North Kitsap residents and integral to keeping cross-island traffic down. Higher fares would not offset the need for

taxpayer subsidy; Hayes envisions a combination of local-option sales taxes and local motor vehicle taxes, which could appear on the ballot as early as November 2003.

Hayes’ plan looks like an early contender, not least because of the prohibitive operations costs likely to keep private players out. It should be recalled that takeover of the ferry service in 1951 wasn’t so much a matter of the state getting into the business as private operators getting out; news accounts of the time suggest the Puget Sound Navigation Company was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and shareholders opted to cut and run. Subsidies have followed since 1960.

The larger issue has always been about keeping residents tied to local economic engines. Fifty years ago, Eliasen and his neighbors looked to commerce on the peninsula. Today’s Kitsap folk, like their island brethren, want a quick connection to downtown Seattle. A revitalized Bremerton and developing Kitsap County will serve us all, and fast ferry service to Seattle is certainly part of that equation.

Islanders should be ready to give Kitsap Transit their

support – as constituents and taxpayers – to keep passenger-only service to our county.

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