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Kingston-Seattle ferry bounces on iffy financial seas

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

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.

Some have criticized the port for purchasing the Spirit, a light catamaran that last winter’s heavy seas treated roughly. “The weather was slowly beating up on us,” recalled port commissioner Pete DeBoer. About six sailings, he says, got cancelled.

Kirschner defended the decision to purchase the boat, with its capacity of 149 passengers, as striking a balance between operating efficiency and all-weather reliability. There will be “a small number of times” that the boat won’t be able to run, he admitted, but he called the expenses of operating big, car-carrying ferries, such as Washington State Ferries (WSF) runs, “horrific.”

WSF ferries get only about 11 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel — down in the range of lunker SUVs carrying a single person. The Spirit, at 30 passengers per run, falls short of even that lamentable level, by this reporter’s quick calculation. At 80 passengers per run, however, the boat would be two and a half times as efficient as WSF’s vessels.

“There were actually people advocating a much smaller boat” when the purchase decision was made, Kirschner said.

The ORCA card application will not reduce the fare, currently $7 each way for the 50-minute passage: its benefit will lie in its ease of use. Kirschner noted that a large number of Seattle employers subsidize transit fares through the regional transit smart card, and that working with ORCA is “much more convenient than with a larger number of providers” to whom employees pay cash fares, as has been the case with the Spirit. Since the procedure for subsidizing employee transit takes a bit of time, the card is not expected to have a substantial impact on ridership until Dec. 1.

Even so, on the morning of Nov. 1, however, Henry noted seven new faces using the card as they boarded the Seattle-bound Spirit.

Introduction of the card proved difficult, since becoming a member of the ORCA system involves a financial commitment well beyond the Port of Kingston’s capacity. The port got around that barrier by piggybacking on Kitsap Transit’s membership in the system. Ironing out software and hardware issues also took time.

How much of a ridership bump the card will provide remains an open question. The port has also pursued charters and special trips as an income source, but the yield thus far has been mixed. A charter cruise to watch Poulsbo’s July 4 fireworks this past summer sold out in a few days, but specials to Seahawks home games have numbered exactly one — for the first home game. Since then, reservations for the Seahawks run have been so few that the port has had to cancel the services.

The port’s message, at least, remains optimistic. “We’re pressing ahead,” DeBoer said. “If we can increase the revenues and decrease the burn rate, it’s going to be doable,” Henry summed up.

Comments from Bruce Agnew, an expert on transportation issues and director of Seattle’s Cascadia Center for Regional Development, also included a lot of “ifs.” “You have to look at [ferry service in Puget Sound] in the same context as multicounty transit,” he said, referring to Sound Transit and the Whatcom-Skagit-Island intercounty connector buses. “They are difficult to finance because they involve two or more counties. It’s up to the Legislature to step in to provide some sort of operating subsidy.” He also pointed to the Connecting Washington Task Force, chaired by Gov. Christine Gregoire and charged with finding new solutions to the state’s transportation challenges, including funding.

“MVET [the motor vehicle excise tax] is still fairly low outside of Sound Transit’s taxing district, and there’s some room in there for multicounty transit services throughout the state, including passenger-only ferry service,” Agnew said. While sympathetic to Kingston’s position as a small port district going it alone in providing a ferry, the facts of the situation tempered his hopes for Sound-spanning partnerships and state-brokered solutions. “I’d suggest they try to get through the winter. But when they look at things at the end of the first quarter of 2012, the spring of 2012, they may want to go to seasonal [spring-to-fall] service in 2013, as many passenger-only ferry services around the world do. But I would wait until they have a year of data to make that decision.”

Alternatively, if the real-estate market quickens, increasing relocation to the Kingston area, and if operating support from the state materializes, “it should be a year-round service,” he said.

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