February 17, 2008
A few weeks ago, in a guest column for the Seattle P-I, Washington's Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond wrote: "The ferry system is facing big challenges -- aging boats, service interruptions, inadequate funding -- and some of those problems may well be of the ferry system's own making. ... I am learning from the past, but I am focused on the future."
Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed legislation for $100 million to construct three small car-ferries with the first delivery scheduled in about 14 months. Three larger boats also are being designed to add to the fleet.
That's all well and good -- and it's the right thing to do for safety reasons. But at the same time, the ferry system should be rethinking its mission, and move beyond a repair of the past.
The operating metaphor for the state ferry system is that it's a marine highway. But that's no longer always true. The ferry routes from Southworth to Kingston are more like Metro or Sound Transit than a rural highway. Instead, urban ferries should be a link in a regional transit system.
Puget Sound represents an infrastructure that is open and ready for use. What is required to make that so is imagination -- and investment.
A Bainbridge Island boat is the largest commuting vehicle in the state. You would think that its Seattle terminus would be intermodal; yet every morning commuters line up on the boat for a quick exit, hoping to catch the intersecting No. 15 or 18 Metro bus before on First Avenue. About 7:30 a.m., other commuters watch the 99 bus whiz by (the old trolley used to wait), knowing the next bus is after 8 a.m. This is not a modern transit system.
A grand ferry rethink means measuring the effectiveness of large auto ferries. If the transit system works on both sides of the water, fewer cars should be required. In many cases, it would be cheaper for the transportation system to subsidize taxis, rental cars, parking and other means of transportation at the terminals as a way to limit vehicles on those routes. This is especially true for the late night runs when there may be only a dozen or so cars. The hard fact is that sometimes the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge might be the most environmental and efficient route.
Don't think boats; think buses on the water, where smaller and more frequent is a better paradigm. For example, one large boat might be enough for the Bremerton run -- especially if it's supplemented by frequent passenger service from smaller vessels.
So how do we pay for this new transit system? Bruce Agnew, director of the Cascadia Center For Regional Development at the Discovery Institute, suggests considering a small increase in the motor vehicle excise tax. He also has called for regional transportation funding and control.
One idea might be for the state to transfer ferry operations from the urban Puget Sound routes to a regional transportation authority, even Sound Transit. Then it could continue to maintain the more rural marine highway under state authority. That makes sense because the commuter-related issues are more critical for residents of King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
We think a water-based metro transit system makes sense for the 21st century. But buying new boats for old routes doesn't get us there.