Puget Sound foot ferries migrate to San Francisco

The Bay Area makes use of our former foot ferries, and then some, all paid for by tolls.
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A ferry passing beneath Golden Gate Bridge.

The Bay Area makes use of our former foot ferries, and then some, all paid for by tolls.

One of the best ways to get around metropolitan regions without a car ... is on the water. And you need not own a boat yourself. In the San Francisco Bay Area, there's an extensive network of passenger-only ferries — they carry people, but not cars. The Bay Area Water Emergency Transit Authority promotes a combined 14 commuter and leisure routes, and is considering more. WETA was created in 2004 to consolidate several longstanding passenger-only ferry routes in the Bay Area, and coordinate emergency response for all. As the "emergency" in the agency's name implies, one focus is being prepared to deploy foot ferries to connect people and places in case of a natural disaster such as an earthquake, or a terrorist attack. Either could decommission roads, bridges and highways. But WETA's main charge is regional daily water transit.

To update the Bay Area's foot-ferry fleet, the agency recently took delivery of a new, $8.8 million, 149-passenger twin-hulled catamaran constructed by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland, Wash., — on Whidbey Island, right here in our very own Puget Sound. The company has built 41 similar vessels since 1982, but the latest iteration is state of the art, as the South Whidbey Island Record reports. Nichols Brothers is already building a second model for WETA, one of three more boats the agency has ordered to date and expects to have running this year.

WETA hopes to have 10 new boats operating by 2025. Fleet expansion and replacement takes foresight and finance. As the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the new vessels are financed by a one-dollar hike in Bay Area bridge tolls, which was implemented at the beginning of 2007. The Gemini, which also carries up to 34 bicycles, will initially run between San Francisco and the East Bay.

Meanwhile, the other foot-ferry agency in the Bay Area, which also operates the Golden Gate Bridge, has bought for $4 million two late-90s vintage high speed passenger-only vessels from Washington State Ferries. The boats will run between San Francisco, and Larkspur and Sausalito. They were used on the Bremerton-Seattle passenger-only route, which was discontinued because of lawsuits from waterfront homeowners in narrow Rich Passage who contended the voluminous wakes from the boats caused shoreline erosion. That is not expected to be an issue in the more open waters of the Bay Area.

WSF, which continues to operate a badly aging and fiscally-strapped system of car ferries, gradually got out of the foot-ferry business (it also operated the Vashon Island-Seattle route) after passage of I-695 in 1999 cut car license tab fees used for funding.

Foot ferries remain in Puget Sound, though. King County has created a foot ferry district — funded by a portion of the property tax — to operate the Vashon-Seattle route, the West Seattle Water Taxi and several demonstration routes that could become permanent, depending on ridership. Bremerton and Kitsap County will test a new low-wake high-speed foot ferry on the Bremerton-Seattle route. The Port of Kingston plans a Kingston-Seattle route. San Juan and Whatcom counties are exploring a Friday Harbor-Bellingham run. Securing full funding is still an issue in each of these last three instances, and shoreline impact challenges remain pressing for Bremerton-Seattle, as Kitsap Transit's Executive Director Dick Hayes writes in the Kitsap Sun.

Compared to the unified approach of the Bay Area, the future for Western Washington foot ferries looks pretty uncertain, and pronouncedly ad hoc. But some sort of unifying regional agreement with additional funding provisions is worth further discussion. This approach could better allow current and future operators to develop — to some degree — shared facilities, equipment, promotion, and management.

In metro Vancouver, B.C., a company named Coast Mountain Bus operates, for the regional transit agency TransLink, the SeaBus passenger-only ferry service. Two double-ended 400-passenger catamarans run across scenic Burrard Inlet (one is pictured above) from Waterfront Station in downtown Vancouver to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, a community connected to Vancouver and the mainland by the local road and bridge network. Trip time is 12 minutes. A variety of direct transit connections are available at both ends — a bus network in North Vancouver, including routes to Grouse Mountain and the Capilano Suspension Bridge; and at Waterfront Station, direct connections to light rail, commuter rail, and buses. Two boats, the Burrard Otter and the Burrard Beaver, ply the route. But they are each 30 years old and require maintenance often enough for TransLink to purchase a new third boat to keep schedules on track during repairs and then expand service frequency in 2010.

Other foot-ferry operators are seeking a foothold in the market as well. A new private service named Coastal Link Ferries connects the bedroom community of Bowen Island — a long stone's throw west across the water from Metro Vancouver — to the central city, currently landing at a less transit-convenient dock downtown at Coal Harbor. The company has so far been stymied in attempts to lease a vacant berth at TransLink's more transit-friendly downtown SeaBus landing (at Waterfront Station), North Shore news reports. Coastal Link says access to the berth there is key to plans for service that it hopes to offer between downtown and the densely-populated community of West Vancouver, just northwest of the city.

On the whole, the Vancouver region's foot ferry service, and particularly the Bay Area's, provide an example for Puget Sound. Here, our extensive water highway is used by plenty of lumbering, aged car ferries but precious few of the more nimble passenger-only vessels which encourage broader multi-modal transit use, walking and cycling, and can provide crucial emergency transportation.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in Cascadia Prospectus.  

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