Tuesday, April 13, 2021
April 13, 2021

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More Puget Sound-area foot ferries could cut travel times, new study says

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A commuter traveling between Renton and the University of Washington could save nearly a half-hour in travel time by boarding a passenger-only ferry on Lake Washington instead of taking a bus, a new study of possible foot-ferry routes says.

The study, released last week by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), was commissioned by the state Legislature to explore the costs, ridership projections and other considerations for expanded passenger-only ferry service on Puget Sound, Lake Washington and Lake Union.

The report did not examine funding sources, timelines for implementation or economic feasibility of new ferry routes.

From 45 initial suggestions, researchers narrowed their scope to seven routes, including four on Lake Washington and Lake Union. They are: Seattle-Tacoma, Bellingham-Friday Harbor, Whidbey Island-Everett, Kenmore-University of Washington, Kirkland-UW, Renton-UW and Renton-South Lake Union.

While passenger-only ferry service could offer faster and more direct connections than other forms of transit, researchers found that routes ending in Seattle would need more study because existing docks do not have capacity for additional service. More work also would need to be done to protect marine plants and animals.

The study did not suggest a governance structure to plan, fund, implement and manage any new route. Cities, agencies and municipalities would need to work together to identify a lead sponsor. They would also need to talk with tribal leaders about fishing rights and planning around culturally significant waterfront property.

The PSRC shared the findings with the Legislature in January, as required by earlier legislation. It will now be up to local leaders to decide how or whether to proceed.

Kenmore Mayor David Baker said he’s eager to bring passenger-only ferry service to his city and would work with the Metropolitan King County Council and other agencies to find funding.

“I have been fighting for a passenger-only ferry up here since 2008,” he said. “It’s something the community is pretty excited about.”

The County Council has set aside $500,000 in the 2021-22 budget for studying passenger-ferry routes that originate in Kenmore and Shilshole, said Elizabeth Evans, a spokesperson for Councilmember Rod Dembowski.

The four routes running within Lake Washington and Lake Union would be commute-focused, with year-round service five days per week. The ferries could help commuters avoid the Interstate 90 and Highway 520 bridges.

A route between Bellingham and Friday Harbor would be seasonal, serving tourists and San Juan Island residents.

A ferry between Kirkland and the UW is projected to be the busiest route studied, carrying nearly 150,000 riders annually and costing about $1.8 million a year to operate, the study said. The Kenmore to UW route could serve 130,000 passengers a year at a cost of $2 million to operate.

Sailings from Renton to South Lake Union are projected to serve nearly 50,000 riders annually and cost about $3.3 million to operate.

Smaller vessels could carry 118 passengers per trip, while larger vessels could handle more than 250 passengers, according to the study.

The report did not determine whether the routes would be economically feasible or how the routes would be funded, said Gil Cerise, who works in transportation planning at PSRC. The authors did not determine whether ferry service should be publicly operated, privately run, or some combination of the two.

The King County Water Taxi and Kitsap Transit’s Foot Ferry and Fast Ferry, which operate in the area, are public entities that provide boats and crews for operations.

During pre-pandemic 2019, the King County Water Taxi served about 444,000 riders between West Seattle and downtown, and about 258,000 riders between Vashon Island and downtown. Kitsap’s service carried about 302,000 passengers between Bremerton and Seattle in 2019 and about 175,000 passengers from Kingston to Seattle. Kitsap also operates service from Bremerton to Port Orchard.

Although transit ridership declined in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cerise said PSRC did not drastically adjust future ridership projections.

“We still think demand and ridership will come back,” he said. “But we consciously stayed away from time frames.”

Kristen Kissinger, a project manager for KPFF, one of the consulting groups that worked on the study, said the pandemic pushed PSRC to move community outreach online. That led to an increase in participation; more than 10,000 people gave feedback about the routes.

A network of passenger ferries hearkens back to the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet that connected communities to downtown Seattle. The privately operated steam-powered vessels carried passengers from the mid-1850s until 1939.

The Tacoma-to-Seattle route, one of the most popular in the Mosquito Fleet, was among those studied. That route would provide an alternative to Interstate 5, serve more than 73,000 riders per year and cost about $4.3 million annually to operate.

Respondents to surveys conducted as part of the study expressed strong interest in the route, as did agencies in Tacoma. However, planners would need to find a landing dock in Seattle with capacity to handle the vessel. Pier 50, the existing space next to Colman Dock, serves four routes operated by King County and Kitsap Transit.

Kitsap Transit is expected to begin a new passenger-only route from Southworth to Seattle early this year.

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