A Lot To Gain From Passenger-only Ferry Service

Original Article

Passenger-only ferries should be crisscrossing the Salish Sea, breaching political boundaries in Puget Sound, as they did when Native American and First Nation tribes used these waterways for trading and socializing.

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.

It’s a stiff challenge to be sure, but with ever-clogged highways and long car-ferry lines, the San Juan Islands and the rest of Western Washington have much to gain from expanded foot ferry service.

The eight-county North Sound Connecting Communities Project, or Farmhouse Gang, has energetically advocated alternative transportation, including expanded foot ferry service with inter-modal landside connections.

A 2005-06 pilot project showed there’s a potential market for Bellingham-Friday Harbor foot ferries. Now, several regional players are looking to fund development of a related business plan for Bellingham-San Juan service. Also under discussion is a potential San Juan-Seattle weekend service. San Juan County joining the Skagit/Island Regional Transportation Planning Organization is key and would allow the county access to additional planning funds and increased clout in Olympia.

Meanwhile, counties to the south, such as King County, are pursuing their own still-unfolding plans for more foot ferries. A key building block for all would be a regional compact on passenger-only ferries from Blaine to Port Angeles and Olympia. Signatories could include ports, cities, counties, tribes, private vessel operators, shipyards, maritime labor, WSF and private developers.

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. Transit agencies could pool resources to help contain operating costs. Tribes could partner on certain routes, with contracted service to their gaming, entertainment and cultural centers – many on or near the water.

Private sector operators such as Argosy and Victoria Clipper would be allowed to bid on routes. 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.

Puget Sound is also an aquatic treasure under environmental pressure. Sound cleanup 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 erode largely irrelevant county and city boundaries for a common cause.

Tribes 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 better connect communities within and between the Sound’s north, central and south reaches.

Bruce Agnew is director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development at Discovery Institute, which led formation of the Puget Sound Passenger Ferry Coalition in 2003. More at:

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.