September 10, 2007
  

Passenger-Only Ferries In Puget Sound Gain Momentum

Matt Rosenberg

A flurry of developments suggests passenger-only ferries are gaining momentum in Puget Sound. In recent months there have been seven routes in operation: the state's Vashon Island to downtown Seattle run; King County's West Seattle to downtown Seattle water taxi; Kitsap Transit's Port Orchard to Bremerton foot ferry; and four longer, privately operated routes to the San Juans Islands and Victoria. Now, add another local water taxi, and - it appears - another major regional passenger ferry route.

From today through late November, the Electric Boat Company will run reservation-only water taxis connecting neighborhood docks along Seattle's Lake Union, as KOMO4-TV reports. Here's the schedule. In addition, the Port of Kingston - in northeast Kitsap County across Puget Sound from Seattle's near-northern neighbors - has received a $3.5 million federal grant to fund Kingston-Seattle foot ferry service. The Kitsap Sun reports on this likely resurrection of a foot ferry run that didn't pencil out for one operator, Aqua Express, in 2005. Nels Sultan of Kingston Express will bid on the route and says he can make it work in part by starting small with just one boat.

There's more. A recent Urban Partnership grant of $138 million from the feds to the state and King County to implement tolls on the State Route 520 Floating Bridge and cut regional traffic snarls included $11 million for the state ferry system and within that pool, $1.1 million to expand service on the current Vashon Island-Seattle foot ferry.

Meanwhile, the West Seattle Herald reports that West Seattle water taxi ridership is up and a local advisory group called the Pier 1-Pier 2 Committee is suggesting the route's West Seattle dock be shifted from pinched accomodations at Seacrest Park a short distance south to the Port of Seattle's Jack Block Park, where there's far more room for park-and-ride spaces. That's a good idea. The current King County Metro water taxi shuttle bus to Seacrest Park is very small and only runs to and from Alki and the West Seattle Junction. Parking near the current Seacrest Park dock off Harbor Avenue is highly constained, as is space for larger buses. A large park-and-ride lot and room for mid-size buses with a longer range than the current shuttle routes is necessary to grow the water taxi service.

All this comes as the Puget Sound transportation planners are looking closely at how to best develop a regional passenger-only ferry system.

Last month, as part of a current study, the Puget Sound Regional Council released a white paper on on issues and trends affecting the future viability of a passenger-only ferry network. Among the key preliminary findings:

  • passenger-only ferries must be conceived and implemented in the Puget Sound region as a unified network which meshes with other transit modes and routes;
  • the public and decision-makers will have to be convinced the regional mobility benefits justify the costs;
  • (even if private operators are involved) the service must be framed as public transportation, with subsidy levels comparable to other public transit modes;
  • high-density "transit-oriented development" can be a significant driver of passenger-only ferry traffic, but trade-offs must be clearly illustrated to communities;
  • labor is the largest cost driver, and wages vary based on employer and whether employees are unionized or not. Scheduling is also a key cost factor. "Peak period service is most economical when using a split shift, with two distinct morning and evening segments. If the vessel is running all day, it is necessary to provide multiple shifts;"
  • funding for passenger-only ferries includes seven different federal sources, property taxes by ferry districts of up to 75 cents per $1,000 assesssed valuation, state budget appropriations, voter-approved sales and use taxes, motor vehicle excise taxes within a public transportation benefit area, fares, charters, employer subsidies, development fees and concession revenues;
  • Puget Sound and lake routes to be analyzed further for feasibility, with updated demand estimates, include Renton to Seattle (Leschi) on Lake Washington, Kirkland (across Lake Washington) to University of Washington to Seattle docks on Lake Union, Kingston-Seattle, Bainbridge Island Seattle, Bremerton-Seattle, Clinton (south Whidbey Island)-Seattle, Tacoma-Des Moines-Seattle and Southworth-Seattle.
  • The draft white paper prepared for the PSRC by Nelson Nygaard Consulting Associates notes that the Washington State Ferries (almost entirely a car ferry network at this point) is the largest ferry system in the U.S. and carries 25 million passengers annually. However, in 2003, 44 percent of all passengers were walk-ons and that percentage is projected to grow to 62 percent by 2030. By that year regional population will have grown 39 percent since 2000 and employment 42 percent.

    If our much-vaunted emphasis on growth management is to mean anything at all in the face of such changes, governments will need to make high-density development a more attractive proposition by emphasizing livability through added green space, better policing (in Seattle), and fast, convenient regional transit including bus rapid transit and foot ferries.

    What is the optimal arrangement for Puget Sound ferries in future decades? Given the spike in gasoline prices, current road congestion, the coming age of tolling, and the continuing push for greater urban and suburban density, a regional foot ferry network could really make sense in the end.

    Recent news shows that interest is already high and the possibilities are many. When the PSRC study is done, county councils, local governments and private foot ferry operators will have a road map to developing a viable system in Puget Sound. But, no less important than financial considerations and land-use and transportation planning will be political leadership.

    Related:

    "A Big Step Toward Resuming Foot Ferries In Kingson, Kitsap Sun;

    "Fast Ferry Will Come To Kitsap For Research," Kitsap Sun;

    "Low Wake Study and Planned Ferry Are World Class," Kitsap Sun;

    "A Turning Point Approaches For Fast Foot Ferries In Puget Sound," Cascadia Prospectus;

    "Willamette River Ferry Transit for Portland: Pipe Dream Or Not?," Cascadia Prospectus;

    Marine Transportation Article Archive, Cascadia Center For Regional Development Web Site.

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