OLYMPIA — Lawmakers and transportation leaders Thursday explored the idea of integrating Kitsap Transit’s passenger-only ferry model throughout Puget Sound to reduce congestion on Interstate 5 and local highways.
Kitsap Transit is proposing to build 14 or more 149-passenger ferries and operate them like a marine bus system. They would depart Bremerton, Kingston, Southworth and Vashon Island every hour for Seattle and leave every 15 to 20 minutes during peak times.
Washington State Ferries intends to cease operating its passenger-only ferries in June because of the high cost. Kitsap Transit’s system could be up and running as soon as October 2004, provided that residents pass local tax increases.
Thursday’s meeting was the first step in creating a regional team of representatives from local government, transit groups, including Kitsap Transit, and private boat operators. The team, coordinated by transportation integration experts Cascadia Discovery Institute, spoke in favor of creating public-private ferry operations using Kitsap Transit’s fast ferry proposal as a template.
The cost of the ferry system would be shared by the counties it connects instead of falling be borne only by Kitsap County residents.
“We need a few things from the Legislature (to start public-private passenger ferry service) and they have been very responsive,” Jim Metcalf, who represented Kitsap Transit at the meeting, said of the Legislature.
The things he refers to are House Bill 1853 sponsored by Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, and its companion bill, Senate Bill 5850, sponsored by Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard. The bills would allow Kitsap Transit to raise countywide sales and vehicle excise taxes — with approval of voters — to fund a fast ferry system.
“We’re (depending) on the voters of Kitsap County to agree,” Metcalf said. “We have reason to believe that we have a reasonable chance of success.”
Inter-county transit funding isn’t a totally new idea. One exists in the East Sound area, but deals mainly with land transportation, Rockefeller said.
Such a system sounds reasonable, said Rockefeller, but he hasn’t given up on a state-run system yet.
Washington State Ferries already has the infrastructure, some boats and the experience to start a fast ferry fleet, Rockefeller said. It only lacks funding, funding he will be fighting for until the legislative session ends in late April.
Rockefeller’s state-run proposal would maintain current car-ferry service and calls for passenger-only runs from Kingston, Southworth and Vashon to Seattle.
However, in light of the $2.4 billion budget deficit, many lawmakers could find Rockefeller’s small-bite proposal too much to chew. The Senate particularly could see the public-private proposal much more palatable.
Rep. Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo, who attended the meeting, said she doesn’t want to see Kitsap alone paying the bill for fast ferries, even if it’s voter-approved.
The group that met Thursday will get together again in a couple months after the legislative session.