In search of passenger-only ferry service that pencils out

A 'return of the mosquito fleet' might make sense, but finding the right combination of public and private money to float a useful and economical service has proved elusive.
Crosscut archive image.

The passenger steamer <i>Daily</i>, launched in 1912, served on the Seattle-Tacoma route.

A 'return of the mosquito fleet' might make sense, but finding the right combination of public and private money to float a useful and economical service has proved elusive.

As the Seattle area braces for major disruptions from future construction to replace or remove the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Evergreen Point Bridge, some see an opportunity for increased use of fast passenger-only ferries. At an event on Monday, July 2, put on by the Cascadia Project, the transportation think tank of the Discovery Institute, advocates and elected officials from around Puget Sound called for a regional effort to increase service. Foot ferries have a long history on Puget Sound. The Cascadia Center touts the "return of the mosquito fleet," referring to the numerous privately-owned vessels that once provided transportation around the region. They point to such popular ventures as Seattle's Elliott Bay Water Taxi, which runs from downtown to West Seattle, as examples of what passenger ferries can provide. Whatever capacity this nostalgic proclamation holds to excite interest, it obscures a recent history that has been fraught with difficulty. There have been several attempts in the past two decades to revive passenger-only ferries as a viable form of transit. Washington State Ferries (WSF) began its involvement in the field in 1985 with the completion of a 1990-2000 Long Range Plan. The longest-lived passenger-only service that the agency ran was between Bremerton and Seattle, from 1993 until 2003. Despite this longevity, the run was plagued by low ridership, high operating costs, and lawsuits over noise and soil erosion caused by vessel wakes. The passage of Initiative 695 in 1999 substantially undercut the state's ability to provide ferry service, and passenger-only routes were the first to be cut. Across the ferry system, service was reduced and ridership fell to 1993 levels. (Ridership and service have since increased.) WSF currently runs only one passenger ferry route, between Vashon Island and Fauntleroy Dock in West Seattle. In this climate, it fell to individual counties to find a way to provide passenger-only service. Kitsap County, which is the most dependent on the ferry system, has made several attempts at providing service. A sales tax levy to fund several passenger-only routes was soundly defeated by voters in 2003; another, this time with a vehicle excise tax appended, was defeated this February, albeit by a slimmer margin. The county pressed on, working with private companies to provide service. Under this arrangement, Kitsap provided docks and transit connections for passengers while the ferry companies provided vessels and service. Though two companies were contracted to provide runs, neither was able to attract enough ridership to meet its costs and both are currently on hiatus. One of the companies hoped to add a run between Southworth and Seattle, but hasn't received a permit; unfortunately, this route conflicts directly with the viability of WSF's Vashon-Seattle passenger-only service, which depends heavily on passengers from Southworth. The industry admits that it is probably not possible to create a viable business model without government funding. At the Cascadia Project event this week, labor leader Gordon Baxter noted that there is no such thing as a passenger ferry without subsidies. Washington State Ferries is also subsidised, but not to the same degree required by passenger-only ferries. The Elliott Bay Water Taxi recoups 50 percent of expenses through passenger fares, while the Vashon passenger ferry recoups 20 percent of its expenses (though part of this is due to high capital costs associated with building a new dock). WSF's passenger-vehicle ferries, in contrast, recoup about 80 percent of their operating costs through fares. A 2005 report (3.2 MB PDF) by the agency found that passenger-vehicle ferries were between three and six times cheaper to operate on a per-passenger basis than foot ferries, depending on the type and size of vessel, due in large part to high fuel use by passenger-only boats. Because of this expense, WSF is anxious to get out of the passenger-ferry business altogether. King County appears set to step in and take over the Vashon run, with the passage of a new law in April creating a King County Ferry District. The county is also hoping to extend the Elliott Bay Water Taxi, which currently operates only from May to September, to year-round service and is exploring the possibility of a ferry run across Lake Washington from Kirkland to the University of Washington. The county is considering a property tax of two to three cents per $1,000 of assessed value to fund these ventures. King County Council member Julia Patterson, who represents SeaTac, Renton, Burien, and Des Moines, sees the need for regional cooperation on the issue, citing Sound Transit as a model. She notes that the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is preparing a study on ways to provide regional water service. If the Vashon Island run is to remain viable, King County and Kitsap County will need to find a way to cooperate on service to Southworth. However, with Kitsap County voters unwilling to foot the bill at this juncture, the county will need to find alternative sources of funding, either from federal grants or from another attempt at passing a tax package. The county is also asking the state government to pass a law allowing creation of small, local ferry districts for the communities that feel a need for the service. Until either of these things happen, regional cooperation will be difficult. Lost in the rush to expand service, however, is a clear accounting of the environmental impact of foot ferries. Soil erosion from wakes is a major problem; advocates claim that new vessel design can lower the impact, and a study on the subject will be completed by Pacific International Engineering in 2008. Moreover, foot ferries use much more fuel per passenger than the larger passenger-vehicle ferries. Advocates of foot ferries claim that they will get people out of cars, especially for ferries plying routes not served by the WSF's passenger-vehicle ferries. The PSRC is looking into the issue, but Cascadia Project director Bruce Agnew admits that the link between foot ferries and reduced car use is as yet "notional." Even if this link can be clearly shown, foot ferry advocates must prove that this offsets the significantly higher fuel use, the environmental impact, and the high operating costs of passenger-only ferries.

  

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