If ever a sea-going vessel has sailed uphill, it is the much-beleaguered passenger-only ferry between Kingston and Seattle's Colman Dock. Following in the wake of the Aqua Express, a passenger-only service that failed back in 2005, the Port of Kingston's SoundRunner service has seen no shortage of headwinds since its launch a year ago. And without a substantial increase in patronage, the service appears doomed to follow the Aqua Express into history.
Beginning Tuesday (Nov. 1), however, holders of the ORCA regional transit smart card became able to use the card to pay their fares aboard the port's boat, the Spirit of Kingston. Port of Kingston executive director Kori Henry has high hopes that introduction of the convenient card will come to the undertaking's rescue.
Speaking on Monday (Oct. 31), Henry said the Spirit has been averaging about 30 passengers per run, but needs to carry at least 80 to break even — that is, to remove the need for any operating subsidy. Last winter, the port had been looking at a 130-passenger threshold as assuring solvency, but Henry noted that, since then, “we've cut the budget a lot, so that our burn rate [of cash] per month has come way down.”
SoundRunner service got its start with a $3.5 million federal grant, which allowed the port to buy the Spirit and a backup vessel. The Washington State Department of Transportation kicked in $150,000, now exhausted, and the port's commissioners authorized $200,000 per year in operating money for a four-year start-up period. With that sum already exhausted for 2011, the commissioners in September allocated another $340,000 to sustain operations until January of next year. At that time, the next yearly appropriation of $200,000 will kick in.
In the meantime, on Dec. 20, the three commissioners will meet to “review the financials and make sure that the trends are in the right direction,” in the words of Jerry Kirschner, chair of the port's citizen's advisory committee for the ferry undertaking. Kirschner is also running for an open position on the port's three-member commission.
Some have depicted the December meeting as an opportunity for the commissioners to scuttle the service in the light of the bleak ridership numbers. Henry disagreed, saying, “I don't think that's going to be the decision that they make.”
The public seems less sanguine. Online comments on a recent Kitsap Sun news story on the service ran strongly negative, one commenter stating that a “silent majority” of local residents “have known for months now the service is doomed and they're just watching the circus and the financial distaster unfold as the pathetic 'group think' continues to pile up the massive losses of taxpayer money.”
Kirschner conceded, “There are people in the community who view this very negatively, and I've talked to a lot of them. The flip side is that there are people in the community who look at this very positively.”
The port has just completed a survey of citizen opinion on the SoundRunner, but has yet to collate the results. Whatever the response from that, history affords little encouragement in the meantime. The Aqua Express lasted all of eight months. Launched on Oct. 18, 2010, the current SoundRunner service encountered trouble immediately. On its first day, the Spirit lost one of its four engines. The service's first program manager was dismissed 11 days later; the second, hired shortly thereafter, lasted a month. The Spirit limped along on its three remaining engines until service was suspended Nov. 18. The backup boat could not take over because it needed a new gangway suited to the docks in Kingston and Seattle. A third manager, a Kingston-based marketing expert, came on this past spring but resigned in September, citing “a lack of support and trust from the commissioners.” Henry then took over as interim manager; in late October, she became the port's executive director, with SoundRunner's management among her duties.
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