The state House of Representatives has found a way to keep Puget Sound’s passenger-only ferries funded in the short term, Rep. Jeff Morris (D-Anacortes) told local officials and private ferry owners Thursday.
The House Transportation Committee’s proposal includes cutting passenger-only service between Bremerton and Seattle but keeping the Vashon Island-Seattle route. Two new routes from Seattle to Kingston and Southworth also are planned for commuting hours.
But the real question is whether Kitsap Transit should take over the so-called foot ferries in the near future.
“The overall ferry system is in a death spiral, and our first priority is to make the ferry system whole again,” Morris said.
Ferry system Director Mike Thorne has recommended discontinuing foot-ferry service this summer due to increasing operating costs and the fact the boats are only slightly faster than car ferries, yet carry far fewer passengers.
If passenger-only service is to be saved, the House recommended increasing fares to cover 40 percent of operating costs. Now, only 28 percent of foot-ferry funding comes from fares.
Senate Highways and Transportation Committee chairman Jim Horn (R-Mercer Island) questioned whether passengers would pay $12 per round trip versus the current $7.10. The House plan also would eliminate the discounted fares many passengers pay.
The only long-term solution is a public-private partnership between Kitsap Transit and companies such as Argosy and Clipper Navigation, said Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Poulsbo). If local government provides the infrastructure, Woods is confident private contractors could operate the ferries at a competitive cost.
“No private business will get into this business on their own. If we make public docks and subsidies available, we can get there together,” she said.
Argosy president John Blackman echoed Woods’ opinion, saying private companies are willing to step in as long as government subsidizes the capital costs of vessels and docks.
Kitsap Transit has a $50 million plan to buy 15 passenger boats that would provide service between Bremerton, Southworth, Kingston, Vashon and Seattle. Kitsap County voters would have to approve a local sales tax increase of up to 0.8 percent and a motor vehicle tax hike of up to 0.9 percent this November to pay for the service.
Federal grants could be available for the Kitsap Transit project, said Federal Transportation Agency spokesman Rick Krochalis. Start-up grants for new transportation programs and air-quality improvement funds are available, because the transit agency’s new boats would have cleaner engines than the five current foot ferries.
The Cascadia Project, a regional transportation study group sponsored by the nonprofit Discovery Institute, held Thursday’s meeting so local business and government leaders could discuss ways to improve Western Washington’s ferry system.
Cascadia director Bruce Agnew said he hoped Washington would learn from San Francisco, which has expanded ferry routes throughout the Bay area to complement bus and rail service. If the Kitsap Transit model works, smaller “water taxi” routes could someday link Everett to Seattle and Tacoma to Gig Harbor.
The Port of Tacoma is in the preliminary stages of planning a foot-ferry service, and port officials will watch the Kitsap situation closely, spokeswoman Julie Collins said.
John DeWeese: 360-943-7123