Rough seas for Puget Sound's foot ferries

Mechanical problems, low ridership, money woes, and scant coordination among water and land transit systems: What else can go wrong? And what's the best route to calmer waters?

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The 'Spirit of Kingston' passenger ferry

Mechanical problems, low ridership, money woes, and scant coordination among water and land transit systems: What else can go wrong? And what's the best route to calmer waters?

Efforts to launch new passenger-only ferries on Puget Sound bring to mind metaphors like "encountering headwinds," "paddling upstream," and "treading water." Kitsap Transit still awaits a functional hydrofoil to get its much-delayed Seattle-Bremerton foot ferry out of the figurative doldrums.

For the Port of Kingston's Seattle-Kingston foot ferry, launched in October, the problems have rolled in like winter storms, forcing an embarrassing suspension of that service after only one month. In Port Townsend, advocates for a pedestrian ferry to and from the Emerald City are facing the fact that the federal and state governments have as yet declined to underwrite the venture.

Kitsap Transit executive director Dick Hayes has had to immerse himself in marine-engineering issues since a carbon-composite hydrofoil fell off and sank to the bottom of Bellingham Bay last March, during the first high-speed test of his agency's foot ferry. The hydrofoil, a sort of high-tech wing attached to a boat’s hull, lifts the craft out of the water, reducing drag and thus allowing increased speed. 

“We’ve even hired a forensic engineer to hold up our end of the debate,” Hayes said, summarizing the ensuing negotiations with the craft's builder, Bellingham's All-American Marine. He spewed out terms like “computational fluid dynamics” and “finite element analysis.” 

“At the end of all that you wind up with a foil that should be strong enough. We’re very close to that,” he said. He expects a launch in May, followed by a prolonged testing phase that will focus on the key question: whether the boat can limit the wake it generates, thereby minimizing damage to pricey shoreline properties along Rich Passage, which separates Bainbridge Island from mainland Kitsap County. He does not expect the boat to begin revenue-generating service between Bremerton and Seattle until the spring of 2012 — assuming the months of testing prove successful.

The boat, the Rich Passage I, would join the Kitsap Transit’s own Bremerton-Annapolis and Bremerton-Port Orchard shuttle ferries and the King County Ferry District’s water taxi, which travels from downtown Seattle to Vashon and West Seattle, as the Sound’s only pedestrian ferries. One might also include the Seattle-Kingston ferry in the fleet, except that it has been out of service since Nov. 18. 

Murphy’s law, that is, has had its hands on the helm at the Port of Kingston. For one stormy month — both literally and figuratively — beginning on Oct. 18, the port’s Spirit of Kingston plied its route to and from Seattle’s Colman Dock. On its first day of service it lost one of its four engines. It limped along on the other three until the Nov. 18 suspension. A backup boat could not take over because it lacked proper Coast Guard certification and needed a new gangway suited to the docks in Kingston and Seattle.

At 30 to 40 passengers per run, the service was falling far short of its goal of 130 to 150 riders — which would have allowed the unsubsidized operation to break even. Program manager Eric Osnes was dismissed Oct. 29, for reasons port commissioner Pete DeBoer, in a recent interview, declined to specify. An interim manager, Karen Arnold, was hired a few days later. She lasted a month, resigning at the end of November because, in DeBoer’s words, “she lacked the skill set” for the position.

The port commissioners have not yet sought a new manager. The backup boat has now been certified, and its new gangway fabricated and installed. “We’re thinking March” for a service-resumption date, DeBoer said. 

A reserve of $359,000 has provided something of a cushion, but “We don't have the money to run [the service] ourselves through the summer right now,” he said. “We have to do some smart business stuff. We’re working on a marketing plan, which kind of hadn't been done very well. The only reason we have the $359,000 in the bank is we chartered the boat out in the summer.” 

Asked about connections with land transit that would encourage use of the ferry, he said, “It's tough to break into other peoples' bureaucracies. Everything we do is an uphill struggle, it seems.” 

As the head of one of those bureaucracies, Kitsap Transit’s Hayes responds that his agency was ready with vans to shuttle commuters to and from the Kingston terminal, but that the Spirit of Kingston’s ridership “really wasn’t enough to get a van-pool from any one place. They were really up against it."

“To make a ferry work to downtown Seattle, you’re going to need about a 50 percent subsidy to keep the fares low enough to bring in enough riders. There are buckets of examples from all over the U.S. of people failing because they don’t have an operating subsidy.” 

DeBoer remains optimistic. “We’ll do it right,” he said of future plans. 

A scant hour north of Kingston — by fast boat — the Port of Port Townsend is meanwhile proceeding with its own foot-ferry plans. The port’s commissioners voted unanimously last month to continue seeking $2 million to launch their service to Seattle, after Congressional sentiment put the quietus to a federal earmark that would have furnished half that sum. A state financing possibility dried up when a rural-mobility grant application was rated too low, among the grants in hand, to make the cut for funding.  

“I'm looking wherever I can [for money],” said deputy port director Jim Pivarnik, who is spearheading the effort.  

Part of the problem may be that the Port Townsend initiative is aimed at carrying tourists, primarily, rather than commuters. Asked why public money should underwrite a tourist-oriented venture, he said, “Tourism is the lifeblood of this community. It's difficult to get here. We're at the end of a road. Getting cars off the road and getting people to experience this town — it takes a boat. 

“The community has told us they don't want to be a bedroom community. We respect that.” 

Asked about the possibility of a single ferry that could call at Kingston on its route between Port Townsend and Seattle, Pivarnik said his district and Kingston's had discussed the option, but that it wouldn't work. Port Townsend’s boat would hold fewer than 50 passengers, while Kingston has opted for two larger, more costly vessels.

“We all cringed when they bought those boats," Pivarnik said. "I'm not sure that they're the best boats to do the service for Kingston.” 

Foot ferries administered by local jurisdictions have evolved from the legislature’s 2007 decision ordering Washington State Ferries (WSF) to terminate its pedestrian ferry services in favor of its core business, car ferries. The last WSF foot ferry became history in 2009. 

The ongoing debate over WSF’s reorganization and the advantages of pedestrian ferries is now giving foot-ferry providers food for thought. DeBoer cited a recent conversation on that subject with “several key players” in Olympia. “We think it might be time for an action group to form and look at this. 

“If there are 10 cars on a 200-car ferry, run fewer car ferries, reschedule them and run passenger ferries in those slots,” he said, referring to contemplated WSF service cuts.

There are a lot of ways to approach service.

“For what it cost to build the Chetzemoka,” DeBoer said, referring to the new, $79.4 million Port Townsend-Keystone car ferry, “we could have built 15 passenger-only ferries. Easily.” 

In terms of fuel efficiency, foot ferries far surpass WSF’s car ferries, which provide a paltry 11 passenger-miles per gallon — equivalent to having the passengers ride across the water one by one in SUVs. 

One challenge facing foot ferries is coordination among providers, which is currently limited. Sharing of timetable information offers a case in point. While the Kingston district made some attempts to work with land-transit providers, DeBoer said the possibility of placing schedule information in WSF timetables hadn’t entered anyone’s mind.

Asked why the King County Water Taxi and WSF don’t publish each other’s timetable information, Scott Davis, director of King County Transportation Department’s Marine Division, which operates the water taxi for the district, explained that the water taxi and WSF are “entirely different ferry systems. They’re auto ferries and we’re passenger-only.” The two systems’ ferries leave from adjacent Seattle docks, both owned by WSF.  

WSF spokeswoman Marta Coursey said in an email that “We can’t add other ferry systems without increasing the schedule size and therefore the corresponding costs of printing.” She did not respond to a follow-up email asking whether WSF had asked other providers if they would like to buy space in an enlarged WSF timetable.

So will the problem of sensible development of Puget Sound foot ferries be another issue to land in the legislature’s lap? 

“It’s an interesting question,” said Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D-Camano Island), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “They [foot ferry providers] should be working together.”

For now, however, with a package of WSF reforms on the table, state legislators considering the fate of Washington’s ferries have little time to think outside the WSF box.


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