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Uncertainty hangs over foot ferries' future on Seattle waterfront

Washington State Ferries has shifted gears on a plan to remove passenger-only service from a revamped Colman Dock. But what shape the service will take is still in question.
Colman Dock conceptual layout

Colman Dock conceptual layout WSDOT

Colman Dock currently accommodates foot-ferry services, seen on the extension to the left (2005 phont).

Colman Dock currently accommodates foot-ferry services, seen on the extension to the left (2005 phont). Chas Redmond/Flickr (CC)

The West Seattle Water Taxi

The West Seattle Water Taxi King County

A storm of objections over a Washington State Ferries plan to remove the foot-ferry berth from downtown Seattle's Colman Dock has led to a change in course. The ferry system received 196 statements on its plan over a five-week scoping-comment period for a project that will put a new, seismically enhanced dock in place by 2020. 

The possible disappearance of the Seattle landmark's passenger-only ferry berths emerged as the most common subject of comments, appearing in more than three-quarters of submissions when Washington State Ferries (WSF) released a summary of the comments last week. The next greatest concern, traffic impacts, was easily eclipsed. Environmental issues dominated the statements, with bicycle, pedestrian, and transit connections commanding plenty of attention.

The passenger-only controversy erupted in January when, at a roundtable for ferry providers, ferries chief David Moseley presented a schematic for the rebuilt dock with the passenger ferries' berths missing. Three current or prospective passenger-only providers attending the program said they had not seen the plan beforehand.

"We were informed of WSF's decision, but ... were merely informed of their decision and not engaged in any meaningful discussion of solutions, alternatives, mitigation, or collaboration," the Port of Kingston groused in its Feb. 27 scoping comment.

“We are deeply concerned that the proposed project concept eliminates ... a long established component of the transportation system without any consideration for, or mitigation of, the impacts to the multimodal transportation system, the communities impacted, or the environment,” the statement continued.

The letter from the port, whose financially troubled SoundRunner service plies the Kingston-Colman route, set the tone for comments from many others.

In addition to Kingston, other services would also be affected. The King County Ferry District (KCFD) operates the Water Taxi to West Seattle and Vashon. Kitsap Transit hopes to begin using Colman for four months of trials (with paying passengers) for its Bremerton passenger-only service in late June. The Port of Port Townsend is looking to launch a more tourist-oriented service in the summer of 2013. The port might look at other options, but proximity to the city's downtown makes Colman the dock of choice, however.

"Very preliminary research performed since WSF’s recent project notification indicates that there are few, if any, suitable locations along the Seattle waterfront that could accommodate the unique water and land-based needs of the passenger-only ferry function of one or multiple providers," Kingston's letter stated. "This project, as proposed, would deal a severe blow to the fledgling passenger-only ferry operators who are trying hard to provide a waterborne transportation alternative as part of a truly multimodal transportation network ... [and] could represent the demise of passenger-only ferry service on the Seattle waterfront.”

Underscoring similar points, many more organizations weighed in on behalf of continued passenger-only access at Colman: KCFD, Kitsap County commissioners, Kitsap Transit, the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, the Port of Port Townsend, the City of Port Townsend, Jefferson Transit, Seattle city electeds, the MLB Stadium Public Facilities District, People for Puget Sound, the Marine Transportation Association of Kitsap, Transportation Choices Coalition, and the Seattle Mariners.

Not one comment supported abandoning the passenger-only berths.

Moseley's January presentation arguably put WSF on thin legalistic ice. A 2003 state legislative finding declares that "if the state eliminates passenger-only ferry service on one or more routes, it should provide an opportunity for locally sponsored service and the department of transportation should assist in this effort." A 2006 enactment provides that "the Washington state ferry system shall collaborate with new and potential passenger-only ferry service providers ... for terminal operations at its existing terminal facilities."

In this year's session, the Legislature's supplemental transportation budget law joined the statutory chorus, demanding that the Washington State Department of Transportation "ensure that multimodal access, including for passenger-only ferries and transit service providers, is not precluded by any future modifications" at ferry terminals.

Asked in a telephone interview if WSF has now adjusted its plans, Moseley answered affirmatively: "Our job is to be responsive. Our response has been to work more diligently with passenger-only ferry providers ... so that we can get an agreement" on interim and permanent accommodation of foot-ferries.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 24, 3:50 a.m. Inappropriate

While there should be access for foot ferry docking, it should only be done as a private sector venture or the Port leaseing to Private ventures. The King County Foot Ferry is a Waste of taxpayer dollars.

Cameron

Posted Thu, May 24, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Ditto the Kitsap County aspiration. After who knows how much money and time only now "hopes to begin using Colman for four months of trials". I suppose, on the bright side: (with paying passengers).

BlueLight

Posted Thu, May 24, 6:57 a.m. Inappropriate

The big mystery is why the state eliminated the passenger ferry connections from its original plans.

It was just more evidence of the huge flaw in Chris Gregoire's transportation policies: all about the things the state owns, and nothing connected to the broader interests of the people of the state.

It looks like the passenger ferry dust up is on a path to a reasonable resolution.

The bigger question will be whether the City of Seattle and the state will build a structure that is worthy of the role of state ferries in the life of downtown. And worthy of welcoming visitors to the biggest tourist attraction in the state.

It appears that the state wants to build something on the cheap - another monument to Gregoire's state-owned-only transportation policies.

Seattle needs to demand a facility worthy of the new waterfront. State leaders must demand a facility that communicates Washington's competitive brand: quality.

The people in charge of this at Washington State Ferries are not capable of pulling this off. An intervention will be required. Where is the Seattle legislator who will lead it?

Let's build something we can be proud of for decades.

Gregoire's DOT is on a path to be really happy with really crappy.

Jan

Posted Thu, May 24, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, Jan. The governor's office doesn't run the ferry system. And there's a very good reason for that. It's exactly so decisions can be made as far from Citizens United financed politicians as possible and put into the hands of civil servants.

Goforride

Posted Sat, May 26, 8:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Actually, the Governor does run the ferry system. The Governor now appoints the Secretary of Transportation, a change made a few years ago. The buck now stops at the Governor's desk.

Jan

Posted Thu, May 24, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

The DOT has always been hostile to providing dock space to other ferry service providers. The state seems to have an attitude that the WSF is a business and it needs to shut out all others as competitors. If we are to live under a state-controlled ferry system, the state needs to start looking at it as a service, not a zero-sum game with other providers.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, May 24, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

The core issue still hasn't been decided. By law, the state ferry system is a "highway." As such, decisions about cost vs. revenue should not be made in the same way a private entity makes decisions where the primary goal is to maximize profit.

While finanacial considerations are, of course, important, the question that should always be asked first is "How will this decision most benefit the people of the State of Washington?"

If that question isn't asked first, then our transportation infrastructure will look like the profit-making operation out of Kingston.

How'd you like to try to make plans where to live or to work and then have a business say, "Well, that just wasn't profitable. We're outta here."

There's a good reason that the United States had been a country for about an hour before the Founding Fathers were talking about roads, bridges, and docks being publicly financed.

Goforride

Posted Thu, May 24, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Someone please offer up the one-way and round trip ticket cost for a foot ferry passenger and the amount of subsidy by taxpayers for each such ticket...thanks.

animalal

Posted Thu, May 24, 7:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's a guideline: The Seattle-Kingston passenger-only ferry operating cost is $70 per passenger boarding. The "vibrant walkable city" crowd never wants anyone to discuss the costs.

The port spent $1.061 million on the Kingston foot ferry in the past 12 months. The ferry ran 255 days last year. That's 510 trips, or $2,080 per trip. The boats carried an average of 30 passengers, or $69.33 per passenger boarding. I rounded up. I would note that the cost is only operating cost. Capital costs are not included.

For $70 a trip, why didn't they use seaplanes instead? Would've been quicker.

NotFan

Posted Thu, May 24, 8:19 p.m. Inappropriate

The ferry system is part of the highway system. I don't like the fact that the state nationalized the Black Ball Line in a way that would have made Oooogo Chavez blush, but how that we're stuck with a state-run ferry system, the state has an obligation to provide universal service, just as the Black Ball line was required to do as a state-regulated utility. The fact that the state does it far less efficiently than a private operator could is evident to anyone who takes the last remaining Black Ball ship, the Coho (which the state could not grab because it operates in international waters), to Victoria. But we now have a state-run ferry system, so the concern of the people should be to make it run better, not to eliminate it and leave many tax paying citizens without transportation. If you're going to do socialism, you'd better do it on the Swedish rather than the Cuban model.

dbreneman

Posted Fri, May 25, 11:43 a.m. Inappropriate

I repeat: The operating cost is $70 a trip. They could give these people a free taxi ride to Kingston and have money left over.

NotFan

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