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Rough seas for Puget Sound's foot ferries

Mechanical problems, low ridership, money woes, and scant coordination among water and land transit systems: What else can go wrong? And what's the best route to calmer waters?

The 'Spirit of Kingston' passenger ferry

The 'Spirit of Kingston' passenger ferry Port of Kingston

Efforts to launch new passenger-only ferries on Puget Sound bring to mind metaphors like "encountering headwinds," "paddling upstream," and "treading water." Kitsap Transit still awaits a functional hydrofoil to get its much-delayed Seattle-Bremerton foot ferry out of the figurative doldrums.

For the Port of Kingston's Seattle-Kingston foot ferry, launched in October, the problems have rolled in like winter storms, forcing an embarrassing suspension of that service after only one month. In Port Townsend, advocates for a pedestrian ferry to and from the Emerald City are facing the fact that the federal and state governments have as yet declined to underwrite the venture.

Kitsap Transit executive director Dick Hayes has had to immerse himself in marine-engineering issues since a carbon-composite hydrofoil fell off and sank to the bottom of Bellingham Bay last March, during the first high-speed test of his agency's foot ferry. The hydrofoil, a sort of high-tech wing attached to a boat’s hull, lifts the craft out of the water, reducing drag and thus allowing increased speed. 

“We’ve even hired a forensic engineer to hold up our end of the debate,” Hayes said, summarizing the ensuing negotiations with the craft's builder, Bellingham's All-American Marine. He spewed out terms like “computational fluid dynamics” and “finite element analysis.” 

“At the end of all that you wind up with a foil that should be strong enough. We’re very close to that,” he said. He expects a launch in May, followed by a prolonged testing phase that will focus on the key question: whether the boat can limit the wake it generates, thereby minimizing damage to pricey shoreline properties along Rich Passage, which separates Bainbridge Island from mainland Kitsap County. He does not expect the boat to begin revenue-generating service between Bremerton and Seattle until the spring of 2012 — assuming the months of testing prove successful.

The boat, the Rich Passage I, would join the Kitsap Transit’s own Bremerton-Annapolis and Bremerton-Port Orchard shuttle ferries and the King County Ferry District’s water taxi, which travels from downtown Seattle to Vashon and West Seattle, as the Sound’s only pedestrian ferries. One might also include the Seattle-Kingston ferry in the fleet, except that it has been out of service since Nov. 18. 

Murphy’s law, that is, has had its hands on the helm at the Port of Kingston. For one stormy month — both literally and figuratively — beginning on Oct. 18, the port’s Spirit of Kingston plied its route to and from Seattle’s Colman Dock. On its first day of service it lost one of its four engines. It limped along on the other three until the Nov. 18 suspension. A backup boat could not take over because it lacked proper Coast Guard certification and needed a new gangway suited to the docks in Kingston and Seattle.

At 30 to 40 passengers per run, the service was falling far short of its goal of 130 to 150 riders — which would have allowed the unsubsidized operation to break even. Program manager Eric Osnes was dismissed Oct. 29, for reasons port commissioner Pete DeBoer, in a recent interview, declined to specify. An interim manager, Karen Arnold, was hired a few days later. She lasted a month, resigning at the end of November because, in DeBoer’s words, “she lacked the skill set” for the position.

The port commissioners have not yet sought a new manager. The backup boat has now been certified, and its new gangway fabricated and installed. “We’re thinking March” for a service-resumption date, DeBoer said. 

A reserve of $359,000 has provided something of a cushion, but “We don't have the money to run [the service] ourselves through the summer right now,” he said. “We have to do some smart business stuff. We’re working on a marketing plan, which kind of hadn't been done very well. The only reason we have the $359,000 in the bank is we chartered the boat out in the summer.” 


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Feb 9, 6:30 a.m. Inappropriate

From the Story:
"To make a ferry work to downtown Seattle, you’re going to need about a 50 percent subsidy to keep the fares low enough to bring in enough riders. There are buckets of examples from all over the U.S. of people failing because they don’t have an operating subsidy.”

The King County Foot Ferry operates with a 90% Subsidy. It's a joke and Money pit. If Dow wasn't pushing it for his old district it would have been gone by now.

Cameron

Posted Wed, Feb 9, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

All transportation systems are subsidized to a major degree. The question should be: taking all costs and impacts into account, which combination best serves the public interest? Oops, I forgot. We no longer believe in the public interest; that's just a code phrase for "socialism". And, alas, a rational systemic approach would require a comprehensive transportation plan for the entire Puget Sound region with power to override the separate schemes of countless local agencies and districts. That's not going to happen either.

woofer

Posted Wed, Feb 9, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

There is another pedestrian ferry on Puget Sound that operates without a major subsidy, or maybe even without any subsidy at all. It's called the Victoria Clipper, and it also operates a summer-only service to San Juan Island.

gabowker

Posted Wed, Feb 9, 12:33 p.m. Inappropriate

@ woofer: " a rational systemic approach would require a comprehensive transportation plan for the entire Puget Sound region with power to override the separate schemes of countless local agencies and districts. "

I assume you know 3/4 of the agency to do this old saw is already set up and recognized by the feds. Alas, this same agency's governing body, composed of countless local governing bodies, decided a year or two ago, for varying self-centered reasons, that population and jobs "will be" focused in mega-cities, one per county, except King, which already has two. Making the Kingston and Port Townsend ferry-sheds the means to more bedroom communities does not exactly mesh with this counter-trend notion.

Ferry dilemmas are but part of the many symptoms of not being able to agree about where we want to go because we refuse to grasp where we already are. Likewise, railing about trends is premature, if not pointless without appreciation of the reasons behind them.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Feb 10, 9:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Something rarely considered in conversations about foot ferries and solutions for WSF is the fact that the WSF system already serves in large part as a transit (foot ferry) system. Yes WSF is a part of the highway system, but consider the secondary function it serves as transit. Over 60% of total passengers on the Bremerton run (about 1.5M out of 2.5M annually) are walks-ons. On the Bainbridge run about 45% (2.7M out of 6.98M) are walk-ons. To put that volume of transit riders in perspective, it equals about half the annual rider volume of Sound Transit's Central Link light rail. It's surprising to me that the value of WSF as a transit system is rarely mentioned in the debate over it's future.

Based on ridership patterns and volume, a foot ferry for the Bremerton run should really be in the mix for the long term solution. On many boats the car deck is not full to capacity and most of the passengers in the cabin are walk-ons. A combination of foot-ferries and intermittent auto ferry runs at the proper times would be more 'right-sized' to the demand. Of all the runs in the ferry system this one is the most direct link between two dense urban centers, and there is no alternative transit option. Transit needs to be a part of the solution.

I'd also like to point out the value of a viable foot ferry fleet on the Sound for emergency and interim purposes. During bridge closures foot ferries are called on, such as when the Hoood Canal bridge is closed for construction and foot ferry service fills in for commuters. We've got a few major bridges in the region. Another example is when the US Navy contract with Victoria Clipper to shuttle sailors daily between Everett and Bremerton when an Everett homeported carrier is in maintenance at the Bremerton shipyard.

While the ferry / land transit connection is lacking on the Seattle side, all you have to do is go to Bremerton or Winslow during a commute time to see how stellar ferry / bus connection can work. Kitsap Transit does an excellent job of this, largely because of Dick Hayes efforts.

g_dub

Posted Thu, Feb 10, 12:33 p.m. Inappropriate

g dub, Bremerton happens to be Kitsap's designated mega-city, also the only designated mega-city to actually lose population. Not a public word or thought out of our designated transportation agency—PSRC— about reality intruding on their plans. Do they really not even notice the positive ones you mention?

afreeman

Posted Fri, Feb 11, 2:40 p.m. Inappropriate

well, if it weren't for political impediments i'd get my HYBRID, FAST PASSENGER FERRY done. state of the art, fuel efficient and at 40-45 knts,[50mph]over 90% of the time; a modern speed. catamarans are dinosaurs now at 26 knts, and that inefficiently. the engineering firm is first class and local. the cheques to them are 20k up front and 80k upon completion. a bargain for the right vessel the first time. these vessels will carry some cargo as well and never leave empty. 10 year warranty on main engine; only need a captain and one crew, non union to start. all component manf. are well recognized as is my selected builder. it has many applications throughout the salish sea and has a market worldwide for a continuing manufacture. it is a more accurate application of capital to demand. electric cars and vans will be encouraged on both ends of routes, both owned and rented, reducing pollution. "nothing less than the beginning of the modern, salish sea, mosquito fleet." numbers in the book. port townsend-it has been characterized as a "transformational vessel". and great for rich passage.....

douglamy

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