Walk-on ferries will attempt another resurgence on Puget Sound on Monday, when the Port of Kingston starts weekday service between Kingston and Seattle.
Dubbed the "Sound Runner," the weekday service starts with two commuter sailings to Pier 50 in Seattle each morning and two return trips in the afternoon. The port hopes the service can at least break even by the end of 2011. Success, if it comes, could inspire others to attempt it once economic conditions improve.
"People are looking for alternatives, and, also, quality of life has become an important factor," said.Eric Osness, the port's ferry manager, who said the port hopes the shorter commute will lure riders.
There's been an ongoing push for Seattle-Kingston ferry service for some time, and "it's going to be interesting to see if the Kingston (service) can make it. It's a pretty slimmed-down, homegrown operation," said Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development and a big foot-ferry booster. "It may bode well for them to make a go of it."
The service will be the second experiment on the 16-mile route in five years. The private Aqua Express ran a similar service for about eight months in 2005, discontinuing it due to lack of enough riders, spiking fuel prices and the inability to extend its service to Vashon and Southworth.
The "Sound Runner" service will charge adults $15 for a round trip and $10 for a one-way ride between Pier 50 and the Kingston port dock. Monthly passes will be available; tickets will be sold at a booth on the Kingston side of the sound and on the boats to people boarding at Seattle.
As an introductory promotion, rides will be free Monday, with full fares going into effect Tuesday, said port spokeswoman Melissa Liton.
The port thinks it may make a go of the route using a smaller, less fuel-consumptive boat, the 65-foot-long catamaran Spirit of Kingston, and smaller crews.
The boat will make the crossing in 45 minutes but consume less than half as much fuel per hour as Aqua Express' vessels. Another advantage Aqua Express didn't have was $3.5 million in federal grants that paid for the port's boats, the Spirit of Kingston and the Victoria Express.
Another was $150,000 in state operating grant money that will help run the system. Osnes said the port has applied for national state money to help it run the ferries beyond next year.
"We want it to be fully self-sustaining. However we can get there, that's the challenge," Osnes said.
The port bases its business model on commuters, believing it needs 300 riders back and forth between the two communities each weekday in order for the service to break even financially.
Before Aqua Express' attempt, another privately-run ferry operated between Ballard and Kingston in 1924 but only lasted a few months, said Alan Stein, a historian at HistoryLink.org. "It couldn't compete with the Edmonds run," Stein said. The new service will offer a direct route to downtown Seattle that bypasses Edmonds.
Besides seeking other grants the port has sold some advertising that will appear on the boats, though Osnes declined to identify the advertisers before Monday. He said the port also is looking for chances to rent its vessels for charters on weekends to raise more operating cash, and if tourists ride the boats to tour the Kitsap Peninsula that will also help the bottom line.
The boats will have coffee and sandwiches aboard for travelers but no food preparation on board other than microwaves.
Agnew at the Cascadia Center said the port's use of federal and state money gives it a "leg up" making the route work. He said there have been discussions about other foot-ferry routes, including one linking Bellingham and Friday Harbor, but money's been lacking to support it
Agnew's organization has long supported the return of small foot ferries to help relieve traffic congestion but he said new routes will have to attract riders and prove themselves.
"I wish them well," he said of the Kingston port.
Other government entities have considered starting or re-starting foot ferry service. Kitsap Transit is experimenting with designs for a low-wake boat that could be used on new passenger-only service between Seattle and Bremerton; that service was discontinued after a court battle over wakes from earlier boats.
King County, which operates a downtown-to-West Seattle water taxi, has taken over the Seattle-to-Vashon foot ferry service after the state got out of it. The county has discussed the possibility of starting other routes but a supportive property tax levy for ferries was reduced this year to allow addition of a property tax for the Metro transit system.
The county plans to add year-round service to the water taxi, where ridership has grown. But with tax revenues down, the county's focus is on maintaining what it has and "we're certainly not looking at expansion during the coming year," said Linda Robson, an aide to King County Councilwoman Jan Drago.
Raising taxes to pay for new ferry programs "is a discussion for another day, when the economy is recovered," Robson said.
Information about the new ferry service is available online.