Looking Back to Go Forward

Forum Floats Ideas for Bringing Ferry Transportation Back to the Future

Original article
[Note: This is an account of the ferry conference that Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Project organized and put on July 1. Unfortunately, the Cascadia Project is not mentioned here, but the group that it launched, the Puget Sound Passenger Ferry Coalition, is.]

SEATTLE — With her eyes cast back in a memory and her voice tipped with nostalgia, Gig Harbor Mayor Gretchen Wilbert recalled a time when her father could get from his Vashon Island home to his job in Seattle and eight other ports in Quartermaster Harbor just as easily as if there weren’t a body of water separating them.

“Dad rode all the ferries in the Mosquito Fleet. On the way he played bridge, it was really grand,” she said. “And I think it’s coming back to that.”

The room erupted in applause. The 240 people, an array of transportation expertise from across Puget Sound, agree that the future of the Sound’s transportation is in its past — a past where water communities were well-connected by fleets of small, privately run passenger ferries.

To that end, they came together Tuesday for an all-day conference to discuss how passenger ferries could again become the transportation of choice. They say passenger ferries are the natural solution because they are a clean, relatively inexpensive and easy way to keep people off the areas notoriously congested highways. The conference, sponsored by the recently formed Passenger Ferry Coalition, was held aboard the Royal Argosy.

The interests represented were many and varied: transit authorities, lawmakers, private-business operators and regional leaders alike came from all over Puget Sound. They were seeking advice and counsel on how they could move passenger ferry systems to their own areas.

“We’ve come to think and move forward,” Wilbert said.

They came with certain premises in mind. First, and maybe foremost, any successful passenger-ferry system would have to be a public-private venture and the systems must be multi-modal, meaning it must marry well with existing land transportation systems, such as buses and trains.

“We won’t be able to have a chance at a decent passenger-only system without partnerships, partnerships with private business, legislators, public transit authorities and labor,” said Chris Endresen, Kitsap County commissioner and co-chairwoman of the event.

NY Waterway and the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transit Authority were on hand to explain how they created such partnerships to build successful systems. Also, Kitsap Transit presented its passenger-only plan, which also calls for a private-public partnership.

NY Waterway is the largest private ferry operator in the world, operating 57 vessels on 25 ferry routes and transporting 15 million passengers annually into Manhattan. Commuters who buy a ticket — some trips are as cheap as $3 — also get a free bus ticket to one of NY Waterway’s 115 buses. Only the terminals are government subsidized.

It is this system Dick Hayes, Kitsap Transit’s executive director, has been most inspired by and closely modeled the Kitsap Transit plan after.

“Every time Dick goes up to New York to visit his daughter he comes home with a new idea,” Endresen said, laughing.

Indeed, Kitsap Transit’s plan and New York Waterway are similar. Both accentuate land transportation to and from passenger ferries.

“We used to think of ferries as transportation from point A to B. We need to change the way we look at that and think of it as an A to D trip,” said Rob Henry, professional engineer for Art Anderson. “The Bremerton Transportation Center represents an excellent example of such multi-modal transportation.”

Some folks said they took these examples to heart, and also will take them back to their communities with the idea in mind of launching their own passenger-ferry campaign similar to Kitsap Transit’s.

Mike Morton, transportation planner for Island County, said Camano and Whidbey islands would love to have passenger ferries to ease congestion there.

“We have one road in and out of the island, so we have to look for other transportation solutions,” Morton said. “Dick Hayes and his guys have really taken a leadership role on this. They’re the first to do something.”

Morton said that if Kitsap Transit’s plan succeeds, more counties like his will be encouraged to follow suit.

Preston Schiller, coordinator of the North Sound Connecting Communities Project, agreed. He said his group did a study not too long ago that found people of the San Juan Islands were traveling north to Bellingham for a lot of their services. He said their existing roads and ferries are stressed and people there need better access to Bellingham and Everett.

The conference also packed in a star-studded crowd of lawmakers from the local, state and federal levels who lined up behind such efforts. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Rick Larson, D-Lake Stevens, reported efforts currently under way in the nation’s capital to finagle more money for ferries altogether. Murray introduced a bill Thursday that would quadruple the amount of federal ferry funds from $38 million to $150 million.

The bill also calls for the establishment of a Ferry Joint Program Office, a ferry information database, and a ferry research institute, all measures that would provide a national forum for ferries that currently doesn’t exist.

“I’m very excited about passenger-only ferries in Bremerton. Private-public partnerships could be a successful way to get passenger-only ferries up and running and my bill could be helpful (toward this effort),” Murray said.

Reach reporter Niki King at (360) 792-9210 or at