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Sailing Away From Traffic

Forum Explores Water Transit On Lake Union, Lake Washington, As An Alternative to Gridlock

Original Article

More than a dozen passengers boarded the Fremont Avenue as it prepared to depart from the Maritime Heritage dock on South Lake Union. The 50-foot, double-deck vessel, owned and operated by Capt. Larry Kezner, normally operates as a tour/charter boat on Lake Union. But, today was a little different.

Instead of taking people out for an ice cream cruise, Kezner was providing complimentary water-taxi service for those attending the Lake Union/Lake Washington water transit forum, which explored the feasibility of a year-round water taxi service – similar to Vancouver, B.C., and San Francisco – to alleviate gridlock in the neighborhoods surrounding Lake Union and Lake Washington.

Politicians, CEOs and community leaders were among those who participated in last week’s panel discussion, held in a packed conference room at the Adobe Plaza Building in Fremont.

Moving city people

Puget Sound Passenger Ferry Coalition facilitator Bruce Agnew feels that communities will use water transit if it’s convenient. But he emphasized that it must be easily accessible, competitive to ground transit in terms of time and cost and link with other transportation.

Agnew said they are exploring small electric-powered boats to supplement Kezner’s 47-passenger vessel. The boats would have virtually no wake and create minimal impact on the environment.

Kezner’s ferry only took 14 minutes to cross Lake Union – the same as a car. But ferries are also unhindered by surface-street congestion.

During the two-hour presentation, panelists talked about linking South Lake Union with the Fremont/Wallingford neighborhoods and the University of Washington. This area is known as the ‘Triangle Route.”

Agnew said that the route is a good place to start a water-taxi service because land access and bus linkages are already in place.

So far, three possible sites have been chosen for this route, including Kezner’s dock in South Lake Union. Kezner owns the Seattle Ferry Co. and has a permit to operate passenger ferry service from South Lake Union to Fremont.

Discussions are underway for a possible ferry site at the pier on Stone Way North (the preferred site) or at one of two Metro Transit properties near Gas Works Park.

Panelists also spoke of an intermodal transportation hub in Montlake, which would connect light rail, state Route 520 bus service and passenger ferries. The proposed site would serve University of Washington students and employees, commuters and sports fans.

Aside from logistics, Agnew also mentioned that Lake Union would be perfect for passenger ferry service because of the tremendous growth surrounding the area.

“We’re seeing an explosion of new development, especially in Eastlake and South Lake Union. Lots and lots of people will be living in [the area], so being able to connect employees and residents in the triangle will be important.”

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis agreed, saying, “For it to work, it was to serve dense urban areas where people live and work.”

Queen Anne resident Nicole Pastarnack could be an ideal canidate for the Triangle Route. She owns a store on the south end of Lake Union and an office on the North End, often shuttling back and forth between the two. When traffic is bad or if the bridge is up, it can take her 25 to 30 minutes to get around the lake, she said.

“I would absolutely, without a doubt, use [the ferry service],” said Pastarnack, who sat among the attendees at the forum.

Supporters emphasized that the Triangle Route would best serve short-distance commuters like Pastarnack, rather than the typical SOV (single occupancy vehicle) commuter.

During the question-and-answer session, Suzie Burke, owner of the Fremont Dock Co., responded to a question about how to accommodate more parking by saying, “We’re talking about moving city people around the city; we’re not talking about a great, big parking lot. We’re gonna choose a way to do this without a lot of new cars.”

Passenger ferries for Metro?

Despite all the enthusiasm, it became evident during the forum that an integrated water transit system would not be an easy task to accomplish. Many nodded their heads in agreement when one of the speakers pointed out that it was time to stop procrastinating and just do it.

One of the main questions brought up was whether the service should be publicly or privately operated. Agnew said that if the public gets involved with funding it, it could take a year or two to get service off the ground. If a private operator decides to run with it, it could start right away.

So far, Seattle Ferry Co. and Argosy Cruises have shied away from year-round passenger ferry service because it’s not as cost-effective as tours and charter service. However, they have indicated an interest in operating the service if the government decides to subsidize or franchise it, planners say.

Seattle-King County Metro is presently coordinating a study with the Discovery Institute to determine if water transit could become a viable part of the Metro transit mix. The project will look into potential costs, projected fares and the advantages and disadvantages of different operating models. Once the study is done this fall, Metro will decide if and how they will become involved.

Agnew said that they are going to wait until Metro finishes the study – which could take up to two years – before implementing the Triangle Route on Lake Union.

Meanwhile, as the forum ended, Nicole Pastarnack said that she looked forward to riding Kezner’s ferry back to South Lake Union and excitedly shared one more reason for using water transit: “It’s so much fun; it’s like going on a cruise!”

To learn more about the Lake Washington-Lake Union water transit project, contact the Cascasdia Center Discovery Institute, at 292-0401.