A Turning Point Approaches For Fast Foot Ferries In Puget Sound

Original Article

This Monday July 2, our Cascadia Center For Regional Development hosted a jam-packed forum in West Seattle for stakeholders to discuss next steps toward funding an expanded system of passenger-only ferries on Puget Sound and Lake Washington. This would embody a modern-day return of the region’s old “Mosquito Fleet” of foot ferries; providing today’s commuters and others with expanded transit options in a region facing increasingly congested roads and steets, and major population growth in coming decades.

Cascadia Center’s Director Bruce Agnew moderated the panel discussion featuring presentations by members of the Puget Sound Passenger Ferry Coalition. Among those speaking were King County Council members Dow Constantine and Julia Patterson.

KIRO 7 TV and KING-5 TV were among media reporting. (Click on the above link or the “embed” below for the KIRO 7 report).

Agnew told KIRO 7’s Graham Johnson:

We have plenty of water and you don’t have to purchase new right-of-way, so it seems like…bringing back these boats as a form of mass transit in Puget Sound, its time has really come.

Expanded foot ferries become more logical when one understands the dimensions of estimated future costs for roads and transit in and around Seattle. The final report of the Regional Transportation Commission study group, authorized by the state legislature and Gov. Christine Gregoire, notes Central Puget Sound faces a $62 billion shortfall in needed funding for roads and transit over the next 24 years. (See third page from the top, here, in the study’s cover letter to Gov. Gregoire from commission co-chairs Norm Rice and John Stanton).

With regional traffic congestion at top of mind, Ed Friedrich of the Kitsap Sun filed this story after attending the forum Monday. Friedrich wrote:

King County, already gridlocked and with massive road construction projects on tap that will tie up traffic even more, formed a ferry district this year that will tap property taxes. It plans to boost West Seattle water taxi service to year-round, take over the state’s Vashon-Seattle route, pay for a demonstration boat between Kirkland and the University of Washington, fund a feasibility study of other routes and provide money for better boats and docks. It will cost King County landowners 2 to 3 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. “Compared with other modes of transportation, that’s a bargain because the infrastructure is not as expensive,” said King County Councilman Dow Constantine, who spearheaded the ferry district effort. “Water is free.”

For 100 years, passenger ferries moved people and goods around the region, King County Council member Julia Patterson said. Service bottomed out in recent years after Washington State Ferries lost its motor vehicle excise tax funding and opted out of the foot-ferry business. “Next year, Washington state will be out of the business and will be looking to the region and local governments to provide that service,” she said. “We cannot meet that demand with a patchwork approach. We need a regional vision. We need to be thinking big and working together on this issue.”

Highlighting Patterson’s remarks, King-5 TV aired this report the next morning. (Click on preceding link or the “embed” below).

All foot ferry proponents recognize that, as one participant at Monday’s forum stated, “the difference between vision and hallucination is implementation.” Will Echols of Crosscut details this morning how economic obstacles to expanded passenger-only ferry service in the region have proved daunting, so far.

But several factors suggest a turning point may be approaching. First, as the region’s traffic mess intensifies, is the sheer cost of continuing to fund necessary landside roads and transit. The $62 billion shortfall identified by the Regional Transportation Commission study group only covers improvements needed in the next 24 years; but regional population will continue to grow thereafter, necessitating still more travel capacity. Next is our region’s expansive water geography, providing connections between a plethora of major population centers. Third is substantial near-term growth, as the Puget Sound Regional Council notes in its “Destination 2030” transportation plan: a 30 percent increase in the region’s four-county population (from the 2006 total of 3.5 million) and a 50 percent increase in travel by 2030 means more comprehensive transit, including more ferries, will be necessary. The PSRC notes:

Today, the central Puget Sound region has a high level of traffic congestion. By 2030, the region will grow by an additional 1.1 million people, add over 850,000 new jobs, and need to accommodate close to 50 percent more travel, putting even more strain on our transportation system. To ease current congestion and prepare for future growth, the region must expand its transportation system and complete key missing links. With smarter, more strategic transportation investments, traffic movement can be improved by the year 2030, even with additional people and increased use of our roads, buses, trains and ferries. With an expanded set of transportation choices offered by a more fully developed system, the region can prepare for continued economic growth, while protecting and enhancing its celebrated quality of life.

Finally, having recently formed a passenger-only ferry district with taxing authority, King County is postioned to fund a first-stage passenger-only ferry system expansion. Regional funding for more passenger-only ferries need not necessarily be secured through ballot measures posed to voters, nor from the state. While it is premature to make such a recommendation, it is worth considering that Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties could – as King County is positioned to do – approve by council vote a modest property tax increase to fund more passenger-only ferries. The legislature would merely have to alter the enabling legislation for the King County ferry district to allow the other three counties the same powers, and additionally grant all four the option of joint governance, along with key local governments, of a regional foot ferry system.

An ensuing challenge would be seamless integration of foot ferry, bus and commuter train traffic across the region – a priority which may well beg the question of a regional transportation commission empowered to plan, prioritize and fund road and transit projects, employing “best practices” such as public-private partnerships, system-wide and variegated vehicle tolling on major highways, and cost-effective “design-build” project bidding.

It is early, though. Very early. The first step in the possible “return of the Mosquito Fleet” is to see what happens in King County. As noted in stories by the Tacoma News Tribune and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the county council could approve a modest tax increase for more foot ferries as soon as November.

There is of course no “silver bullet” to the region’s pressing need for improved transportation; but rather a series of necessary road and transit improvements to ease congestion and broaden choices, of which passenger-only ferries are one.