A renaissance for Puget Sound's passenger-only ferries is looking less likely in the wake of less-than-encouraging ridership on Kitsap Transit's new foot-ferry and an August 22 decision by the Port of Kingston not to continue its passenger-only ferry (POF) service after September 28.
Kitsap Transit (KT) launched its service trial for the Rich Passage I POF in late June, with four round-trips every weekday between Bremerton and Seattle's Pier 50. Ridership has been lackluster, averaging about 45 per run, as opposed to the boat's 118-passenger capacity.
While the service is advertised and operated for passengers more or less like any other ferry, the trial is being financed as research under a federal grant, and is primarily intended to test the impact of the high-speed catamaran's wake on sensitive shorelines in Rich Passage, between Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. The scientific data thus far are fairly promising.
“I'm very optimistic that [the boat] is performing as well or better than expected” in terms of wake impacts, said KT executive director John Clauson. He added that favorable data may soon allow his agency to provide additional runs with the boat.
Finances are another issue. The ferry, which plies the same Bremerton-Seattle route as the much more frequent car-ferries operated by Washington State Ferries (WSF), is recovering just over 25 percent of its operating costs from fares, according to the best information available. The average of 45 riders per sailing is well under the anticipated 65, which by extrapolation would have meant farebox recovery in the range of 37 percent.
Clauson sees several reasons for the disappointing numbers. While the $7 fare is less than the state system's single-trip charge, it exceeds what purchasers of WSF's 10-trip tickets pay. Further, a number of Seattle employers subsidize their workers' WSF fares.
KT has also had to contend with scheduling problems. The limited number of sailings do not fit in with everyone's work schedule. “Unfortunately our schedule was dictated by the availability of dock space in Seattle,“ Clauson stated. The King County Ferry District's West Seattle and Vashon water taxis and - through September 28 - the Port of Kingston's foot-ferry are also using the two-dock slip, meaning that, at peak times, arrivals and departures for four ferries need to be juggled.
At the Bremerton end of the route, KT's own bus schedules were designed around the arrival and departure times of WSF ferries, not the Rich Passage I. That anomaly, and indeed most of the operational shortcomings, can be traced to the short, four-month duration of the service trial.
Some adjustments are being made, however. KT's board has decided to lower the fare to $6, undercutting WSF's 10-trip rate, and to expand service with an additional weekday afternoon round-trip. Both measures will take effect September 4. Four days later, the catamaran will begin Saturday service, with five round-trips.
Still, no plans or funding stream exists for continuing the service beyond the current experimental phase, which will end in early November, with the boat then going into dry dock. “Once we have the results of the research project,” Clauson said, “it will be up to our local electeds to decide where to go from here. If we don't go forward, the boat would be made available to other folks.”
The Port of Kingston's story differs from KT's in a couple of major aspects: Kingston's SoundRunner service has not been a research project, and has not shared its route to and from Seattle with a WSF ferry. The port's Spirit of Kingston has been sailing the route to and from Pier 50 as a regular commuter service, and racking up numbers not very different from KT's. The 149-passenger boat carries an average of about 23 passengers at a time, recovering 24 percent of its costs from fares, according to rough figures supplied by the port.
After nearly two years of operation and a monthly operating shortfall in the $40,000 range, the costs of the service have bled the port's reserves, to say nothing of the undertaking's political capital.
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