Last week's fast foot ferry demo and regional foot ferry discussion forum in Seattle, organized by Cascadia Center, stoked the fires again. KOMO 4 TV, The Kitsap Sun and The Peninsula Daily News all weighed in with coverage. Participants came away energized by the ride on All American Marine's 50 mph River Gorge Explorer (right); determined to find a way to fund a regional network of state-of-the-art passenger-only ferries; and understanding that Puget Sound's health must be maintained at the same time. The common thread is the huge population growth headed our way in coming decades. Before we delve into last week's events, let's set the stage.
Off, Then On Again
The speedy passenger-only state ferry running between Bremerton and Seattle several years ago was a great ride but the heavy wake impact on shoreline properties led Rich Passage homeowners to sue, successfully ending the route. The ferry used then and a companion model are now being sold because the cash-starved state system is getting out of passenger-only ferry operations. Washington State Ferries is still operating a troubled, and badly aging fleet of car ferries.
Opportunities abound for local and regional operators of passenger-only ferries. The Port of Kingston will be launching a route to and from Seattle with a $3.5 million federal grant tied to variable-rate tolling SR 520, and possibly another $900,000 from the state. One-way fares will be about $13 and the Port predicts the route could be profitable as soon as four years out. King County's new passenger-only ferry district relies on a small hike in the property tax. They'll operate two current routes (between downtown and West Seattle and Vashon Island) and test out several more. Meanwhile, the Puget Sound Regional Council is deep into a study of how best to organize and fund a regional passenger-only ferry system, and Kitsap County will take delivery next year of a new low-wake high-speed foot ferry to be tested on the Bremerton-Seattle run. All eyes will be on Rich Passage.
Staggering Growth = New Marine Highway Plan
To top it all off, it's becoming clearer every week, that with 1.7 million newcomers expected by 2040 and as many as four million more by 2100 according to the Seattle Times, our region's approach to marine transportation needs to focus at least as much on vehicle-free passenger vessels as car ferries. So the idea of a regional passenger-only ferry network run by a consortium on cities, counties, ports, tribes and private operators is gradually moving from the "what if?" stage to the "how to."
A Regional Approach
In early December, at a summit on the state's underfunded and decaying car ferry system, Cascadia Center presented a draft interlocal agreement for regional passenger-only ferries. Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman (below, left) also then floated the idea of developing a joint funding vehicle for Puget Sound cleanup and passenger ferries. Little more than a week later, one of the state's mothballed 350-seat passenger ferries was pressed into service between Port Townsend and Seattle, after Port Townsend's economy reeled from the sudden forced retirement of the aged car ferry connecting it with Keystone, on Whidbey Island. The temporary holiday season run between Port Townsend and Seattle proved wildly popular though economically unsustainable due to fuel costs of the big boat, and heavily subsidized fares.
"Salish Sea Express"
Cascadia Center Director Bruce Agnew stoked the buzz in February with a Seattle Post-Intelligencer Sunday op-ed titled, "Imagine A Network of Foot Ferries."
In it, he outlined a proposed regional compact to share resources and best practices to run foot ferries on the Salish Sea, the Native name for Puget Sound. Following Bozeman's lead, he also proposed this be coupled with more resources for preserving the Sound's water quality as growth and development take their toll.
Would You Leave Your Car Behind?
All this was the focus of a special gathering last week in Seattle, replete with a demonstration ride on a hot rod foot ferry. The sleek, 70-seat low wake River Gorge Explorer was manufactured by All American Marine of Bellingham as an eco-tour boat for the Tennesee Aquarium. A 149-seat version with a lower wake will be delivered by All American to Kitsap Transit next year for test runs between Bremerton and Seattle, through Rich Passage. The half-hour excursion on Elliot Bay last week left many riders convinced that demonstration runs across Puget Sound for commuters and leisure travellers would be a phenomenal sales tool. All American Marine CEO Matt Mullet agreed, saying special lease arrangements could make that possible.
In addition to Vashon to Seattle and West Seattle to Seattle, it's not hard to envision low wake fast foot ferries winning large riderships on other routes. Such as Southworth-Seattle, Kingston-Seattle, Everett-Seattle, Bremerton-Seattle, Kirkland-UW (on Lake Washington), Bainbridge-Des Moines (Sea-Tac Airport), and Vancouver-Seattle. For commuters especially, last mile connections would be key.
At the passenger-only ferry forum hosted last Thursday May 8 by Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant in the Port's meeting chambers, and organized by Cascadia Center, Bremerton Mayor Bozeman made the case for Puget Sound clean-up and more regional foot ferries, together:
Our ferry system should look a lot different. Should we be transporting people across Puget Sound, not cars? I think the proportion should be at least equal. At the same time, the environmental quality of this body of water is crucial. These two issues can come together, and they should.
Dan O'Neal, a board member of the Washington State Transportation Commission, said to the gathering:
There's a lot of enthusiasm for passenger-only ferries. We have an auto-centric ferry system, and you have to wonder if that's sustainable, given the costs of construction and operations of car ferries. But we don't want a range of different passenger-only ferry jurisdictions. We need a regional overlay.
Regional MVET: A Starting Point For Discussions
In a memo prepared for the event, Cascadia's Agnew states that a good starting point for the funding conversation is a voter-approved regional motor vehicle excise tax of $50 with a healthy percentage going for:
As a non-profit, Cascadia Center does not advocate specific legislation. We traffic in ideas. As such, we'll be conducting interviews of key stakeholders on regional funding options and governance framework for passenger-only ferries so that city, county and port elected officials bring forth their own unified proposal to the legislature in 2009.
You can get a good sense of the possibilities for routes and funding from this April 2008 consultant report prepared for the Puget Sound Regional Council's passenger-only ferry study. Pages 5-1 to 5-9 discuss federal, state, private and farebox funding options. Skeptics should take a close look. This is hardly a pipe dream. Like all our region's other transportation funding challenges, it's not a matter of scant resources; but rather vision, and leadership.
Here's a pretty safe bet. As the teeming hordes continue to descend upon the Seattle region, we'll be seeing more passenger-only ferries on Puget Sound in coming years, not less. One way or another.
Cascadia Prospectus Marine Transportation archive.