November 14, 2007
  

King County To Launch New Passenger-Only Ferry Plan

Matt Rosenberg

The Seattle region is blessed with a tremendous natural endowment which doubles as a crucial piece of transportation infrastructure - Puget Sound. State and Pierce County car ferries already ply the Sound, as do a mix of public and commercial, privately-operated passenger-only vessels in King, Snohomish, Whatcom and San Juan counties. For the Puget Sound region, passenger-only ferries on the namesake waterway and on sprawling Lake Washington could be an increasingly viable transportation choice given current road congestion. With sufficient foresight and political leadership, passenger-only ferries plus expanded bus rapid transit and commuter rail could really begin to deliver more and better choices for commuters, other local daytrippers, and visitors who wish to escape the tyranny of traffic.

To lay the groundwork for a new era of passenger-only ferries, the King County Ferry District was formed after the passage of enabling state legislation. Key goals were: 1) sustain the Vashon-Island to Seattle passenger-only ferry route which Washington State Ferries decided to no longer operate; 2) enhance and expand the county's popular Elliott Bay Water Taxi route between Seacrest Park in West Seattle and Pier 55 downtown; and 3) run several demonstration routes on Puget Sound and Lake Washington to see which ones draw enough ridership to become sustainable. The envisioned new routes - such as Kirkland-Seattle, Renton-Seattle and Des Moines-Seattle - would provide alternatives to congested road corridors such as SR 520 and I-5.

All that is now a big step closer to implementation. Yesterday, the county council - sitting as the ferry district - approved a property tax of just more than 5 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, which will cost the owner of a $400,000 home another $22 annually. Combined with other funding sources already identified for boats and landside improvements, the newly-approved tax will pay for the county's passenger-only ferry plan. The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer report; likewise the West Seattle Herald.

Cascadia Center believes that the council's action is an important first step toward a comprehensive regional network of passenger-only ferries that must be carefully coordinated across county boundaries and supported by private as well as public investment. In written testimony we submitted to the county, we stated:

  • A voluntary inter-local agreement should be drawn up so that resources can be pooled and routes coordinated for passenger-only ferry service on Puget Sound. Signatories to the agreement should include local and county governments with a stake in passenger ferry operations, Washington State Ferries, ports, tribes, labor, and private operators...
  • Additional funding sources for passenger-only ferries in Puget Sound can include the federal ferry discretionary fund; hotel/motel taxes; government subsidies comparable to other forms of public transit; and concessions at redeveloped ferry gateways.
  • Public-private partnerships will be necessary and should be encouraged to help engender enduring passenger-only ferry service in King County, and the region. There must be a convergence between private passenger boat operators who provide sterling customer service, and the experience and skill of maritime labor....Opportunities should be sought to secure funding for passenger-only ferry infrastructure and operations through development fees or concession revenues stemming from new or remodeled terminals.
  • As new routes are implemented, timely transit connections will be vital to their success, as will sufficient parking.....Close consideration should also be given to terminal and waiting facilities -- the movement should be away from drab, utilitarian and unwelcoming structures, to integrated transit nodes with warm, comfortable shelter and a range of commercial amenities.
  • As the technology advances, King County and other passenger-only ferry operators should seek all possible assistance and partnerships to ensure that the vessels in service are the latest and best models - providing the greatest speed with the lowest possible impacts to the marine environment, shorelines and air quality.
  • If bridges and highways are severed during an earthquake, Puget Sound will need a flotilla of....passenger vessels that are U.S. Coast Guard-certified to help assure mobility for emergency responders and others.
  • We believe there is significant potential for north-south routes on Puget Sound, and on Lake Washington, which could help provide alternatives to congested roadways.
  • The first demonstration route will be on Lake Washington from Kirkland to Seattle (likely the University of Washington) and back, beginning in July, 2009. That would be followed by another demonstration route between Seattle and the South Puget Sound city and port of Des Moines, beginning in 2010. Additional demonstration routes, introduced one per year thereafter, would be: Kenmore-Seattle and Renton-Seattle on Lake Washington; and Shilshole Marina in northwest Seattle to downtown, via Puget Sound.

    Meanwhile, beyond King County borders, there have been other recent and promising developments for passenger-only ferries.

  • The Port of Kingston in Kitsap County has received a $3.5 million federal grant for passenger-only ferry service to and from Seattle.
  • High-speed low-wake passenger-only ferries are being researched and designed in Kitsap County, for field testing.
  • And the state has awarded a million-dollar grant to the Port of Bellingham and partners to help fund a construction facility for next generation passenger-only ferries.
  • It all spells a clear re-awakening among decision-makers to the mobility benefits of smaller, more nimble passenger-only ferries in Western Washington. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board is enthused; the Kitsap Sun's editorialists, too. Seattle Times associate editorial page editor Lee Moriwaki writes that passenger-only ferries need to be understood as part of the broader public infrastructure that binds together our community.

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    Comments

    Should there be a policy that sets a ceiling on the per trip subsidy cost of passenger ferry mobility paid by the taxpayer, above and beyond what the passenger pays for a ticket?

    Suppose the government operating subsidy per ferry boarding were on the order of the forecast of what it will be for Sounder North commuter rail to Everett in the long run -- $65 per trip, $130 per daily round trip commute. Would that be OK?

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