Private Firms Seek Support to Run Ferries

Original article
Don Sorenson was one of hundreds of drivers inching toward the Edmonds ferry terminal hoping to catch the 4:30 p.m. boat to Kingston. But when the ferry filled up, the line came to a halt, and Sorenson settled in to bake in the sunshine in his pickup to wait second in line for the next boat.

Having driven from his construction job in Seattle, he sat chin on steering wheel knowing he still had ahead of him the half-hour ferry ride and then another hour’s drive to his home in Sequim.

If only there were a foot ferry straight from downtown to Kingston, he thought. There wouldn’t be as many people in line at Edmonds. He would have made the last boat and be on his way home by now.

Private companies such as Clipper Navigation and Argosy Cruises say they could provide more ferry runs around Puget Sound and Lake Washington, carrying commuters as companies do in San Francisco and New York, between the Eastside and Seattle, Gig Harbor and Tacoma, and a straight 30-minute shot between Seattle and Kingston.

They’d be a much-welcome alternative for commuters to being stuck on the highways, or in ferry lines, a return to the past when the Mosquito Fleet of private steamships used to crisscross the waters.

But the idea faces a number of formidable political hurdles. Advocates such as Clipper, Argosy and a business-oriented think tank, the Discovery Institute, are trying to raise political momentum for the idea by holding a “floating forum” with elected officials today on an Argosy boat in Elliott Bay.

The idea of letting private companies run commuter routes has come up several times over the past few years. But advocates such as Clipper Vice President Darrell Bryan say the time is ripe for the idea.

There’s a void the companies can fill, he said. Not only are commuters looking for an alternative to being stuck in traffic, the state ferry system is trying to get out of the money-losing foot ferry business. The state is concentrating on running auto ferries that charge higher fares and give it a better chance of breaking even.

The state plans to drop foot ferry service between Bremerton and Seattle on Sept. 20. Kitsap County is expected to ask county voters in November for a 0.03 percent sales tax increase to subsidize a fleet of smaller foot ferries to run between Bremerton and downtown Seattle.

The Legislature gave the state’s foot ferry between Vashon Island and Seattle two years of emergency funding, but the route’s prospects after that are uncertain.

Also, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. — both of whom are expected to speak at the forum — have proposed increasing federal ferry funding. Neither, though, has taken a stand on using the money for private ferries.

Bruce Agnew, executive director of the [Cascadia Project at the] Discovery Institute, says the money is an opportunity for private companies to get start-up funding.

State lawmakers this year allowed private companies to begin running foot ferry service in 2005. But to be able to actually begin service, Bryan and Blackman said they will need subsidies — from the federal government, the state, local governments or the ports — to buy the boats and terminals for more commuter runs.

They also say they cannot run the services at a profit if they’re forced, in return for the money, to give ferry workers the same rights they have now. In particular, the companies would need to require workers to break up their work day because they envision running the boats only during commute hours.

Pete Jones, regional director of the Inland Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific, the ferry system’s largest union, declined to comment. But the union has opposed such changes in the past.

State political leaders also aren’t sold on the idea. State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the idea of handing tax dollars to private companies is controversial enough without creating the labor problems. “Why should the state buy boats for the companies and break labor’s back in the process?” he asked.

State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, believes money-losing foot ferries simply don’t make sense. If there really is a demand for the routes, Horn said the state should think about running auto ferries in those areas.

Still, Clipper’s Bryan says: “We have all this water around here. The way traffic is, you need to have as many options as possible.”


1850s through 1930: Thousands of private steamships known as the Mosquito Fleet crisscross Puget Sound carrying supplies and people.

1989-90: Owner of the Puget Sound Express cruise line floats idea of running a private ferry from Kingston to Seattle. Idea dies in Legislature.

2000: State Senate passes a bill that would have allowed private companies to operate foot ferries within 10 miles of a state ferry system route. The idea was pushed as a way to make up proposed cuts to state ferry service after the passage of the I-695 car tabs initiative. Bill dies in House.

2002: Senate Bill 5740 would have allowed private ferries to operate within 10 miles of state ferry system routes. Private ferries would not have been bound by state ferry labor contracts. Bill dies in Senate Transportation Committee.

House Bill 2987 would have allowed private companies to lease terminal space from the state ferry system. Bill dies in House Transportation Committee.

2003: Legislature passes bill allowing Kitsap County to ask voters to approve a sales tax increase to pay for a county-run Bremerton-to-Seattle foot ferry. Lawmakers approve another bill that would allow private companies to run ferry routes in 2005, but does not address public subsidies companies say they need to begin service.

P-I reporter Kery Murakami can be reached at 206-448-8131 or