Over the holidays, lucky travelers got a “back to the future” moment on the Salish Sea when Washington State Ferries provided direct passenger-only service — on the mothballed MV Snohomish — between downtown Seattle and the iconic seaside town of Port Townsend. The temporary route began after the state pulled the old Steel Electric car ferries off the Port Townsend-Whidbey Island route because of safety concerns.
Exciting possibilities emerged. Jefferson and Clallam county residents avoided the long drive to Winslow for the Seattle car ferry, shaving an hour off a 2 1/2-hour commute. Scores of Seattle residents rode straight across the water, car-free, to Port Townsend to soak up the city’s distinctive architecture, shopping, arts and scenery.
Port Townsend leaders secured 2,000 signatures for permanent weekend foot ferry service to Seattle. They’re discussing costs and schedule and boat-sharing arrangements with Whidbey Islanders and the Port of Kingston, which has won a $3.5 million federal grant to help fund a new foot ferry route between Kingston and Seattle.
The Port Townsend-Seattle holiday season run illuminated a tantalizing past-as-prologue notion. Passenger-only vessels should still be crisscrossing the Salish Sea, breaching political boundaries in Puget Sound and someday British Columbia, as they did when Native American and First Nation tribes used these waterways for trading and socializing. Later in our pre-interstate highway history, the ubiquitous “Mosquito Fleet” foot ferries carried people and goods from Victoria to Olympia.
Regional leaders increasingly get that foot ferries using our abundant waterways can establish new and direct city-to-city connections, plus temporarily substitute for dry-docked car ferries, and provide crucial emergency transportation if a major earthquake destroys our bridges and highways — as San Francisco tragically experienced in 1989.
The first challenge is to find new regional sources of funding, public and private, in addition to traditional state funding (ferries are part of our state highway system). Regional funding can support joint car and passenger ferry docks, terminals and maintenance facilities. It can leverage private capital investment, relieving the beleaguered ferry capital budget for long-ignored terminals, currently frozen for top-to-bottom review.
A single county should not go it alone, however. The state, faced with deteriorating car ferries and stiff fleet-funding challenges, is rightly ceasing foot ferry operations. As a result, the King County Council formed its own passenger-only ferry district last fall with $18 million in new (property) taxing authority. It will continue WSF foot ferry service to Vashon Island, expand county service between West Seattle and downtown, and explore five demonstration routes on Puget Sound and Lake Washington.
The county deserves credit for moving forward on foot ferries despite some withering criticisms about higher transportation priorities, but we’ll also need a roadmap for regional foot ferry partnerships, and funding sources other than the property tax. Ultimately, their district should serve as a catalyst for a larger regional compact from Blaine to Port Angeles and Olympia. The Puget Sound Regional Council is exploring the potential for a multicounty funding and governance structure for passenger ferries.
The second challenge comes from Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman, who spoke at a recent ferry summit of a modern-day Forward Thrust for Puget Sound. He harkened back to the heyday of the Jim Ellis-led effort that cleansed Lake Washington in the early ’70s. In the mayor’s vision, the cleanup of Puget Sound represents a perfect marriage with a new regional foot ferry initiative — a strategic partnership supporting jobs, tourism and a clean environment. This marriage is also a remarkable opportunity to break down the largely irrelevant county and city boundaries for a common cause.
This bold approach also makes sense because our ancient highway culvert system is designed to move water — not fish — and is in violation of treaty fishing rights. Upgrading culverts as part of a multifaceted Forward Thrust for Puget Sound would help topple government funding silos that can hobble innovation.
Ironically, the feds get it. They tied the $3.5 million federal grant for a new Kingston-Seattle route to a pending agreement between Gov. Chris Gregoire, local and state leaders to toll state Route 520. That nudges us to a place where tolling and transit — including foot ferries — are a major part of our congestion-busting strategy.
The old fuel-thirsty, four-engine, beach-devouring passenger ferries are relics. With a $1 million state grant, the Port of Bellingham, colleges and boat builders will begin developing environmentally sensitive, next-generation foot ferries. On the same track are the city of Bremerton, Kitsap Transit and the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority. They’re arranging their own funding for development and testing of fast, low-wake cross-Sound foot ferries — which they presciently see as a long-term boon to a resurgent downtown Bremerton and central Kitsap County.
To begin coordinating foot ferry strategy regionally, we propose a voluntary inter-local agreement among ports, cities, counties, tribes, private vessel operators, shipyards, maritime labor, WSF and private developers. It would offer a common vision, suggested best practices and finance options.
Under our proposal, ports would be asked to consider appropriating capital funds for foot ferry docks, parking and boat purchases or leases. Private developers would help pay capital costs through local improvement districts like that formed to help fund the South Lake Union Streetcar in Seattle.
Likewise, ferry terminals such as Colman Dock in downtown Seattle could become transportation hubs with major retail outlets like San Francisco’s Ferry Building, which connects Bay Area counties with five city transit lines and great nightlife. Transit agencies could pool resources to help contain operating costs. (Kitsap Transit, Pierce Transit, King County Metro and Sound Transit could fund a Tacoma-Gig Harbor-Des Moines triangle route with prompt bus connections to Sound Transit light rail, and air links, both at Sea-Tac Airport.)
Tribes could partner on certain routes, with contracted service to their gaming, entertainment and cultural centers — many on or near the water. Hotel-motel taxes designed to promote off-season, vehicle-free tourism in the San Juan Islands could fund a weekend route between Seattle and Friday Harbor.
A new mini-economy might develop as local boat builders, such as Kvichak, All-American Marine, Nichols Brothers, Martinac and ToddFast, devote resources to meet new demand for clean-running foot ferries.
Private sector operators such as Argosy and Victoria Clipper would be allowed to bid on routes. With its legacy of experience and talent, maritime labor can add many more jobs, if flexible. Needed are cost-effective boats, work rules and staffing levels that still meet Coast Guard safety standards.
Native peoples named Puget Sound and connected straits the Salish Sea as they traversed the waters for commerce and community. Progress has brought us full cycle. It’s time to develop a Salish Sea Express regional foot ferry network transcending political boundaries, to make a down payment on the 21st century Forward Thrust.