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Competing with the state: A fool’s game for foot-ferries?

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

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.

The project began with unanimous backing from the port's three commissioners. Commissioner Marc Bissonnette supported the project until this past spring, when the numbers changed his mind.

“I think we've spent a lot of money proving there's not a market for it,” he said, in an interview prior to the August 22 decision. “The Port of Kingston has to get out of this.”

Asked what might happen next, Bissonnette saw alternatives, of a sort: “Whether or not a larger entity, like Kitsap Transit or one of the tribes, wants to assume the operation — we'd be happy to hand it over to them.”

Since the August 22 decision, the Port of Port Townsend and the King County Ferry District (KCFD) have expressed interest in acquiring the Spirit of Kingston. "That's sort of in the exploratory stage," commission chair Walt Elliott reported. The southeastern Alaska borough of Ketchikan is meanwhile buying the service's back-up boat, the Kingston Express.

“I think our performance metrics,” Elliott added, “fit in with what would be a norm for a passenger-only ferry operation in this area.” He envisioned a ferry taxing district for the whole of Kitsap County. That could fund the Kingston ferry, Kitsap Transit's Rich Passage I and Sinclair Inlet services, and a Southworth-downtown Seattle ferry. KCFD, whose tax revenues underwrite the water taxis, could serve as something of a model.

"I think we've taken this as far as a taxing district the size of the port [of Kingston] can take it," he concluded.

The Kingston and Kitsap Transit cost-recovery figures do not necessarily diverge from those for other transit services, other ferries included. A quick survey of commuter-oriented public ferry systems across the country indicates an average farebox recovery rate just under 50 percent, but KCFD recovered only 29.2 percent of operating costs from fares in 2010. Pierce County's ferries brought in 23.5 percent, Kitsap Transit's established ferries across Sinclair Inlet 41.5 percent. King County Metro recorded a farebox recovery of 26.3 percent that same year on its self-operated buses. Recovery of under 10 percent is by no means unusual among U.S. transit providers outside of central cities.

The discussion of the cross-sound passenger-only ferries inevitably turns to the state ferry system's role in the equation. Kingston residents have had the choice of just two weekday sailings on the Spirit, but 26 weekday departures on WSF ferries to Edmonds, from which public transportation to Seattle and other points continues the journey for those choosing not to drive. Kitsap Transit's four Bremerton-Seattle round-trips compare to the 15 offered by WSF.  

Asked what potential exists for working with providers such as KT to allow for the fuller utilization of their equipment, and perhaps the redeployment or even retirement of some WSF vessels, WSF chief David Moseley provided this e-mail statement:

“There have been general inquiries from legislators regarding the possibility of POF service on Bremerton/Seattle for mid-day and late-night runs, but there have been no specific proposals or discussions with Kitsap Transit or the Port of Kingston. Any movement forward in this regard … would not alter the number of vessels needed in the WSF fleet or accelerate retirement of any vessels — all vessels in the fleet are needed to maintain the necessary daily level of service on our 10 routes. Therefore, expansion of POF service would not enable WSF to save expenditures by reallocating vessels or retiring vessels from the fleet. It might enable us to save some funds in fuel and staff hour reductions.”

So are there too many cooks in the kitchen? Is the larger regional problem of a proliferation of transit providers replicating itself in the realm of ferry service?

“If the state ferry system is willing to look at those things – I haven't heard that they were . . . I'd like to think that as a taxpayer they'd be open for some discussions and maybe we could all become a little more profitable,” said Larry Crockett, executive director of the Port of Port Townsend.

Port Townsend has a direct interest in the unfolding events: The feds have awarded the port $1.3 million to purchase or lease a boat for its own service to Seattle. In a recent interview, Crockett anticipated purchasing a 49-passenger vessel that would cruise at up to 28 knots, or about 35 miles an hour, and make two Port Townsend-Seattle round-trips weekdays, and possibly more on weekends. Since Kingston's decision to toss in the towel, Port Townsend has emerged as a possible buyer of the Spirit of Kingston. The potential exists for a service calling at Kingston en route to and from Seattle.

“That should be on the table for discussion,” Crockett said, since the Kingston commuters would obviously make the boat more nearly profitable. Fuller utilization of available vessels would also become possible, in contrast to the essential illogic of using very expensive capital assets just a few hours a week.

"We're keeping our float and ramp," Kingston's Elliott noted, "so there will be a place to stop."

Kingston's Bissonnette, a licensed captain with 30 years experience at sea, liked Port Townsend's chances. “At $50 a [Port Townsend-Seattle] round-trip you can pay your fuel and crew. At $7 [for Bremerton-Seattle] you can't. I really think [a Port Townsend-Seattle ferry] might work. It's a tourist-based thing, not a commuter-based thing."

WSF's Moseley's statement concluded, “I believe POF service has the potential to play an important role in Puget Sound transportation. However, it cannot be accomplished without a substantial public subsidy. The legislature has provided local jurisdictions with the authority to secure the necessary public subsidy but, to date, only King County has adopted this authorized funding subsidy source.”


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