Officials Seek Expanded Passenger Ferry Network

Original article
Maritime, transit and government leaders plan to hold a daylong floating forum July 1 to launch a coalition that will help create a network of passenger-only ferries plying Western Washington waters.

A key theme will be how to create private/public partnerships that can make future passenger-only ferries financially viable.

Private operators here contend they can’t operate regular passenger service in this region without some kind of subsidy, but they insist the private sector can run such services more cost-effectively than a government-operated system can.

“Government does certain things better than others could do, and one of those is the ability to borrow money at rates the private sector could only dream about. When it comes to operating something, the private sector does a better job of operating things more efficiently than the public sector,” said John Blackman, chairman of Seattle-based Argosy Cruises LLC, which owns and operates the Royal Argosy. “When you combine the two areas of strength it’s a natural.”

Another key idea is that a passenger-only ferry system will have to seamlessly mesh with other parts of the region’s mass transit system.

Attorney Bruce King, chair of the maritime business and practice group at Garvey, Schubert and Barer and one of the organizers of the conference, said planners should think of “a flow of people.”

The meeting — to be held, appropriately, aboard the dinner ship Royal Argosy — comes at a pivotal moment for the region’s ferry system. Washington State Ferries in September plans to halt its passenger-only ferry between Seattle and Bremerton due to budget pressures. The passenger ferry between Vashon and Seattle will be maintained for only two years, unless it can better cover costs.

In November, Kitsap County Transit will ask voters to approve a three-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax to finance three new passenger-only ferry routes, linking downtown Seattle directly to Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth.

“The idea is basically to educate local, state and federal policy makers as to the economic viability of passenger-only ferry service,” said Peter Philips, an organizer of the conference who also publishes the Seattle trade journal Pacific Maritime Magazine, and is president of the Seattle Marine Business Coalition, an industry group.

Supporters of passenger-only ferry service around Puget Sound waters point out that small, fast passenger-carrying boats are carrying growing numbers of commuters in many urban maritime centers, including New York City and the San Francisco Bay area.

Local supporters envision ferries from Gig Harbor, Vashon, and Clinton to Seattle; Bellingham to Friday Harbor; Seattle to the new Suquamish casino at Bainbridge Island’s Agate Pass; and possibly some ferries traveling the length of Puget Sound. Local companies interested in providing service include Clipper Navigation Inc. and Argosy Cruises LLC.

“I think there are many opportunities to use the waterways that aren’t being used today,” said John Blackman, chairman of Seattle-based Argosy, which owns and operates the Royal Argosy. “There really are opportunities to relieve the transportation in the region.”

Cascadia Project director Bruce Agnew, who has been reeling in political leaders from around the region and nation for the forum, said the Royal Argosy meeting will be the first time many of these people will sit down together to talk about the possibilities of passenger-only ferries.

In additional to local mayors and state legislators, the event will also be attended by Sen. Patty Murray and possibly Sen. Maria Cantwell, Rep. Norm Dicks and Rep. Rick Larsen. National transportation leaders attending will include Arthur Imperatore Jr., president and CEO of NY Waterway, a private ferry system operated in the waters around Manhattan; and Tom Bertken, CEO of the San Francisco Water Transit Authority, a regional government agency.

“All of a sudden our regional coalition has taken on a national tone,” Agnew said, adding that the coalition may bring some pressure in Washington, D.C., to restore at least the $38 million in annual federal funding that maintains ferry infrastructure around the nation, including about $5 million here. While the Bush administration wants to eliminate that funding, Sen. Murray has proposed increasing it to $150 million annually over the next six years, Agnew said.

“We hope to have a deeper commitment by ports, transit agencies and industry. This is a chance to launch the coalition, and invite people to join and financially support it,” Agnew said.

Clipper Navigation general manager Darrell Bryan said he doesn’t believe it’s possible for a private company to profitably build and operate boats on a regular commuter run without some government aid. His company operates high-speed catamarans between Seattle and Victoria as well as various tour boats to the San Juan Islands and elsewhere.

“In most of these routes, the ticket prices can handle the direct operating costs,” he said. He suggested that private companies could operate vessels, if public funding paid some of the infrastructure costs.

“We have to find out what the politicians are willing to support, and what are the needs of the operators,” Bryan said. He added that labor representatives also have been invited to the conference, to see if they would be willing to bend work rules that he said have hampered cost-cutting in the ferry system.

State law also will have to be changed to encourage a fleet of privately operated ferries, because current law prohibits private ferries from operating within 10 miles of a state ferry route.

Reach Steve Wilhelm at 206-447-8505 ext. 113 or