Memorandum Brief: Principles For An Interlocal Agreement On Expanded Puget Sound Passenger-Only Ferry Service

Addressed to the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council’s Puget Sound Leadership Ferry Summit, Friday December 7, 2007, Bremerton, WA, by Cascadia Center For Regional Development, Discovery Institute.

Contact: Bruce Agnew, Director, 206-292-0401 x 113, 206-228-4011 (c),

IN JULY 2003, ABOARD an Argosy vessel, Cascadia Center launched the Puget Sound Passenger Ferry Coalition, with the aim of developing alliances to expand passenger-only ferry service the length and width of the remarkable water highway that is Puget Sound, and on Lake Washington. Since then, the Coalition has organized a series of events, including a well-attended educational trip to the San Francisco Bay Area in Fall, 2006, and last July’s passenger-only ferry forum at Salty’s in West Seattle. Cascadia applauds the continuing efforts of Kitsap County to launch a passenger ferry district, and is greatly encouraged by the King County Council’s long-planned formation, last month, of its own passenger-only ferry district to assume control of two Puget Sound routes, and initiate pilot routes on the Sound and Lake Washington.

As you know, the Puget Sound Regional Council is currently conducting a study on how to best implement passenger-only service in and between multiple jurisdictions. Cascadia is participating in that study in an official advisory capacity.

As the Puget Sound region, including Kitsap County, continues to grapple with population growth, road congestion and vehicle-related greenhouse gas emissions, it becomes more imperative to develop transit alternatives, including improved passenger-only ferry service, that are appealing for the daily commute, for discretionary travel, and tourism. Business development decisions resulting in economic growth are also influenced by improved transit alternatives. While Cascadia Center fully supports local and county-focused efforts to launch new or expanded passenger-only ferry routes, we also believe that ultimately, this under-developed mode of transportation requires a more regional approach in Puget Sound. We recommend to the Puget Sound Leadership Ferry Summit that you actively support a passenger-only ferries inter-local agreement among various key stakeholders to help pool resources and coordinate service across the region. An Interlocal Agreement for Regional Foot Ferry Service should draw from the following points and principles.


The case for more and better-coordinated passenger-only ferries on Puget Sound is strong but requires energetic support. Western Washington suffers from congested highways and roadways, particularly in the I-5 corridor, and concerns about greenhouse gas emissions from transportation are rightfully growing. Providing better regional transit and non-vehicular inter-city travel options for residents and visitors in the Cascadia Corridor will help protect the environment, ease highway congestion, and boost tourism and economic development, while helping the U.S. reduce its worrisome dependence on foreign oil. Puget Sound offers free rights of way on the water and opportunities for passengers in port cities such as Kingston, Bremerton, Gig Harbor, Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, Bellingham, Friday Harbor to connect conveniently for leisure, commerce and tourism while decreasing their use of sole- or low-occupancy motor vehicles. Waterborne transit on Lake Washington can provide similar opportunities to help connect major population and employment centers within King County.


A Puget Sound region-wide interlocal agreement should be crafted to codify how stakeholders can best coordinate the pooling of resources and the development of new passenger-only ferry routes. There would be a suggested emphasis on bottom-up community-based planning, with government’s role being to help facilitate local plans and coordinate them regionally. Signatories would include ports, cities, counties, tribes, private vessel operators (under the auspices of the Passenger Vessel Association) and Washington State Ferries. An indication of the interest in regional coordination of passenger-only ferry service is the PSRC’s ongoing study as it pertains to the central Puget Sound, including Lake Washington.


Technological advances are imminent, as low-wake, high-speed passenger-only ferries move through the R&D phase into field testing and then manufacturing and deployment. Building on their histories in maritime and ferry boat construction, and considering important environmental challenges, the Puget Sound region and Kitsap County are well-positioned to provide leadership and expertise in next-generation passenger-only ferry development. Effects on shorelines, marine life, and air quality must be minimized to the greatest extent practicable. At the same time, the region’s transportation challenges compel the need for new, fast and effective transit choices such as passenger-only ferries, carefully targeted express bus routes, para-transit and more. From the north to the south endpoints of the region, Puget Sound leaders should marshal the necessary resources and seize the opportunity to showcase emerging passenger-only ferry technology. Doing so will improve choices, help control traffic congestion, and benefit the environment and economy of Western Washington.


If the region is to scale up passenger-only ferry travel, more parking will be required at some points of origin and debarkation, as will inter-modal transit connections which are more seamless. In addition, close consideration should also be given to terminal and waiting facilities. The movement should be away from drab, utilitarian or unwelcoming boarding areas, and toward integrated transit nodes with warm, comfortable shelter and a range of privately financed commercial amenities. Like other transit modes, passenger-only ferries will compete in a consumer marketplace for customers whose primary concern is their own comfort and convenience.


Public-private partnerships will be necessary and should be encouraged, both with respect to the financing of facilities and equipment, and the operation of routes. There must be a convergence between private passenger boat operators who provide sterling customer service, and the experience and skill of maritime labor. Split shifts should be allowed, staffing levels should be reasonable but not excessive, and wages good. If passenger-only ferry operating costs are gold-plated, ventures will fail.


Funding options to be explored should include the federal ferry discretionary fund; capital funds from ports in the region; hotel/motel taxes; reasonable government subsidies; and concessions at redeveloped ferry gateways.


Passenger-only ferries should be developed in order to assist in emergency preparedness in Puget Sound. If bridges and highways are severed during an earthquake, Puget Sound will need a flotilla of passenger vessels that are U.S. Coast Guard-certified to help assure mobility for emergency responders and others.


The climate for expanded passenger-only ferry service in Western Washington is, on balance, quite promising. The King County Council has recently approved funding for its own passenger-only ferry district, which will assume control of two routes and gradually initiate five more as demonstration projects. A series of other recent actions in Puget Sound also bodes well, involving federal and state grants for new passenger-only ferry routes and development of high-speed low-wake passenger-only ferries. Going forward – while noting the emerging recommendations of the PSRC study – we must ratchet up regional leadership on passenger-only ferries, developing sustainable funding sources and financially strategic partnerships to make the most of the free waterborne transportation infrastructure on Puget Sound, and Lake Washington.

Bruce Agnew

Director, Cascadia Center
Since 2017, Bruce has served as Director of the ACES NW Network based in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. The Network is dedicated to the acceleration of ACES (Autonomous-Connected-Electric-Shared) technology in Northwest transportation for the movement of people and goods. ACES is co-chaired by Tom Alberg, Co-Founder and managing partner of Madrona Venture Group in Seattle and Bryan Mistele, CEO/Co-Founder of INRIX global technology in Kirkland. In 2022, Bruce became the director of the newly created Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) Regional Infrastructure Accelerator. Initial funding for the Accelerator has come from the Build America Bureau of the USDOT. PNWER is a statutory public/private nonprofit created in 1991 by the U.S. states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan and the territories of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. PNWER has 16 cross-border working groups for common economic and environmental initiatives.