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Are passenger-only ferries on the way back?

The 'Spirit of Kingston' passenger ferry Credit: Port of Kingston

Passenger-only ferry service on Puget Sound continues to make a comeback, with the announcement of a proposed schedule for a Kingston-Seattle foot ferry, and more car-free possibilities on routes as far north as the San Juan Islands.

Could Washington State see a return to the era of the “Mosquito Fleet,” the swarm of passenger-only steamers that covered the Sound before the automobile pushed pedestrian travel aside?

In Kingston the answer appears to be yes. Scheduled to begin service in mid-October, the Kingston-to-Seattle SoundRunner will join two other passenger-only routes on Puget Sound: Kitsap Transit’s Port Orchard-Bremerton-Annapolis service and the King County water taxi, which ferries people from West Seattle to the downtown waterfront. Interest in the expansion of car-free service is widespread, and more foot ferries are likely to join the roster in years ahead.

The Port of Kingston is seeking public feedback on its draft schedule, which calls for the Spirit of Kingston to make two morning and two afternoon rush-hour round-trips, weekdays only, between the north Kitsap community and Seattle’s Colman Dock. The ship will cover the 20-mile crossing in 45 minutes, cruising at 25 knots, or about 29 miles an hour. The round-trip adult fare will be $15.

Kingston purchased two craft for SoundRunner last March. While the Spirit covers the commuter run between Kingston and Seattle, the Victoria Express will serve as a backup vessel. Both ships will be available for charters when not in scheduled service. The ferry will call at the port’s own dock in Kingston; the nearby Washington State Ferries dock cannot accommodate the port’s ships, which are far smaller than the big car ferries that the state operates.

The Port of Kingston received $3.5 million in federal funding to purchase the ships and ready them for service but anticipates operating them without a subsidy, according to ferry program manager Eric Osnes. Passenger fares and charter income will cover the bills, he expects. By comparison, the state’s car ferries recover only 65% of their expenses through fares.

“Pretty remarkable — the little port that could,” Bruce Agnew said of Kingston’s low-budget startup. “It’s the model for the rest of the Sound.” Agnew is a prominent foot-ferry backer and the director of Seattle’s Cascadia Center, a transportation policy think tank.

The port will seek to avoid the fate of Aqua Express, which operated a passenger-only Kingston-Seattle ferry for nine months in 2005. It suffered a death of a thousand cuts: an oversized ship, passenger-unfriendly schedule changes, and spiking fuel prices coupled with what Osnes termed “fuel consumption that was out of this world compared to us.”

Osnes conceded that operating SoundRunner without a subsidy “is going to be a challenge.” Close coordination with terra-firma transit is a must if the port intends to fill the Spirit, which accommodates 150 passengers. The port is working with Kitsap Transit and Jefferson Transit so that buses will get commuters to the dock at the right time and meet returning commuters to take them home.

“It’s going to be door-to-door,” he noted.

The port is thus placing its bets on car-free commuting, no small ambition in a society built around automobiles. The Kingston-Seattle service will cater to the environmentally conscious. The passage will consume about 60 gallons of marine diesel, which translates into 50 passenger-miles per gallon — roughly analogous to a 50-mpg car with one person in it — if the ship is full. The state ferry system does not keep data on its ships, but the best available figures indicate that its ferries manage only around 10 passenger-miles per gallon.

In accordance with a 2007 legislative directive, the state got out of the passenger-only ferry business last year, turning its attention instead to maintaining its aging fleet of car ferries.

The state’s departure from passenger-only service has encouraged fresh ideas in places other than Kingston, too. Kitsap Transit has operated its foot ferries since 2003, and pedestrian ferries have been plying routes between downtown Seattle and both West Seattle and Vashon Island since the1990s.

Kitsap Transit is working toward putting a low-wake foot ferry into service between Bremerton and Seattle, and pedestrian ferries are under discussion in Port Townsend and Port Gamble. The idea enjoys a following in the San Juan Islands but is hampered there by an absence of public transit to handle the land leg for commuters.

“You’ve got to be nimble and flexible,” Agnew said of those thinking about additional foot-ferry services up and down the Sound. “You have to count on federal capital and innovative operating partnerships. The ports are the logical operators. If you look at the [state] ferry system and implement some reforms, then you ought to look at contracting out passenger ferries with first-class operators like Argosy and Victoria Clipper. There ought to be room for private operators. There are a lot of retired sea captains out here who, for $50,000 a year, would be happy to get behind the helm again.”

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