Uncertainty hangs over foot ferries' future on Seattle waterfront

Washington State Ferries has shifted gears on a plan to remove passenger-only service from a revamped Colman Dock. But what shape the service will take is still in question.
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The West Seattle Water Taxi

Washington State Ferries has shifted gears on a plan to remove passenger-only service from a revamped Colman Dock. But what shape the service will take is still in question.

A storm of objections over a Washington State Ferries plan to remove the foot-ferry berth from downtown Seattle's Colman Dock has led to a change in course. The ferry system received 196 statements on its plan over a five-week scoping-comment period for a project that will put a new, seismically enhanced dock in place by 2020. 

The possible disappearance of the Seattle landmark's passenger-only ferry berths emerged as the most common subject of comments, appearing in more than three-quarters of submissions when Washington State Ferries (WSF) released a summary of the comments last week. The next greatest concern, traffic impacts, was easily eclipsed. Environmental issues dominated the statements, with bicycle, pedestrian, and transit connections commanding plenty of attention.

The passenger-only controversy erupted in January when, at a roundtable for ferry providers, ferries chief David Moseley presented a schematic for the rebuilt dock with the passenger ferries' berths missing. Three current or prospective passenger-only providers attending the program said they had not seen the plan beforehand.

"We were informed of WSF's decision, but ... were merely informed of their decision and not engaged in any meaningful discussion of solutions, alternatives, mitigation, or collaboration," the Port of Kingston groused in its Feb. 27 scoping comment.

“We are deeply concerned that the proposed project concept eliminates ... a long established component of the transportation system without any consideration for, or mitigation of, the impacts to the multimodal transportation system, the communities impacted, or the environment,” the statement continued.

The letter from the port, whose financially troubled SoundRunner service plies the Kingston-Colman route, set the tone for comments from many others.

In addition to Kingston, other services would also be affected. The King County Ferry District (KCFD) operates the Water Taxi to West Seattle and Vashon. Kitsap Transit hopes to begin using Colman for four months of trials (with paying passengers) for its Bremerton passenger-only service in late June. The Port of Port Townsend is looking to launch a more tourist-oriented service in the summer of 2013. The port might look at other options, but proximity to the city's downtown makes Colman the dock of choice, however.

"Very preliminary research performed since WSF’s recent project notification indicates that there are few, if any, suitable locations along the Seattle waterfront that could accommodate the unique water and land-based needs of the passenger-only ferry function of one or multiple providers," Kingston's letter stated. "This project, as proposed, would deal a severe blow to the fledgling passenger-only ferry operators who are trying hard to provide a waterborne transportation alternative as part of a truly multimodal transportation network ... [and] could represent the demise of passenger-only ferry service on the Seattle waterfront.”

Underscoring similar points, many more organizations weighed in on behalf of continued passenger-only access at Colman: KCFD, Kitsap County commissioners, Kitsap Transit, the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, the Port of Port Townsend, the City of Port Townsend, Jefferson Transit, Seattle city electeds, the MLB Stadium Public Facilities District, People for Puget Sound, the Marine Transportation Association of Kitsap, Transportation Choices Coalition, and the Seattle Mariners.

Not one comment supported abandoning the passenger-only berths.

Moseley's January presentation arguably put WSF on thin legalistic ice. A 2003 state legislative finding declares that "if the state eliminates passenger-only ferry service on one or more routes, it should provide an opportunity for locally sponsored service and the department of transportation should assist in this effort." A 2006 enactment provides that "the Washington state ferry system shall collaborate with new and potential passenger-only ferry service providers ... for terminal operations at its existing terminal facilities."

In this year's session, the Legislature's supplemental transportation budget law joined the statutory chorus, demanding that the Washington State Department of Transportation "ensure that multimodal access, including for passenger-only ferries and transit service providers, is not precluded by any future modifications" at ferry terminals.

Asked in a telephone interview if WSF has now adjusted its plans, Moseley answered affirmatively: "Our job is to be responsive. Our response has been to work more diligently with passenger-only ferry providers ... so that we can get an agreement" on interim and permanent accommodation of foot-ferries.

Last week's report states that the finalized project will maintain passenger-only ferry service "in the vicinity" of Colman Dock. Asked what "in the vicinity" might mean for an interim or permanent passenger-only facility, Moseley spoke only in tentative terms. As an interim location, he mentioned either the north side of the dock or something attached to the south end. Pier 48, farther south, or the barge facility adjacent to it, could also host the temporary access.

And a permanent home?

"If it's related to Colman Dock, it would either go off the north end, between it and the fire station, or it would go off the south end, similar to where it is now." King County has also expressed interest in the Washington Street boat landing, he said.

At the Puget Sound Regional Council, which has played a supporting role in the pro-passenger-only ferry coalition, planner Steve Kiehl termed passenger service "an important component of [PSRC's] intermodal transportation plan" and said the interim location "should be real close or attached to Colman, ... making it work so we only move once, and then back."

Michelle Allison, legislative aide for King County Council member Joe McDermott, who chairs KCFD and has led the pro-passenger ferry forces, lauded the direction events are taking. "We believe we'll be able to come to a mutually beneficial project for all parties. We're delighted to be working closely with the state ferries."

Relations with WSF have changed as the dock controversy has unfolded, she said. "We're now speaking specifically about what we need."

Asked how many passenger-only berths the replacement facility should have – Two? Three? Eight? – she said, “Right in that range. We do want to leave opportunities for growth in any option.”

The WSF's timeline calls for wrapping up environmental review in late 2013, with design to be complete in 2015. By that point interim arrangements for ferry services will have to be in place and construction will then commence. The new dock is set to be finished by 2020.

Asked how the rebuilt dock will nest into Seattle's transportation infrastructure, Steve Pearce, who manages the city's Waterfront Seattle Project, underscored Colman's role as the ideal nexus for foot-ferries and land transit.

Pedestrians landing at the dock in 2020 may be greeted by new transit service traveling the rebuilt Alaskan Way, he said. That could mean a bus, a trolleybus, or, less likely, a streetcar. On an east-west axis, he anticipated, a trolleybus will take foot travelers up First Hill and beyond. With the viaduct gone, West Seattle buses could stop at the dock on their way to and from downtown. A bicycle route will pass directly in front of the dock.

"We're trying to bring a lot of transportation connections and options together in that location," he summarized. But, Pearce said,  the immediate concern is the dock.


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