DES MOINES — Ever fantasize about skipping congestion on Highway 509 and the First Avenue South Bridge, to cruise rage-free directly into Seattle?
Travelers can try that experience starting Wednesday, when the 60-seat Chilkat Express hydrofoil speeds between Des Moines Marina in South King County and Bell Harbor Marina in Seattle in 40 minutes.
It’s the latest venture in a wave of ferry concepts in the region that have enchanted politicians, maritime businesses and residents. New routes can boost tourism or shorten commutes, but the hoped-for surge of riders doesn’t always happen.
In Des Moines, another goal is for passenger ferries to bring exposure to the city’s waterfront makeover.
“Passenger service is just one more catalyst to attract people to Des Moines, to use multimodal transportation, and to participate in our marine redevelopment,” City Manager Michael Matthias said.
Puget Sound Express will operate the two-month pilot project from Aug. 10 to Oct. 9.
The endeavor conjures dreams of the Mosquito Fleet more than a century ago, when 350 boats visited every shore with a timber dock, before highways and huge ferries replaced them.
Now that roads have filled, boats are not just time-competitive, but they are easier on the atmosphere and habitat than highway expansion, supporters say.
“We are blessed, and sometimes we don’t see it. One hundred and fifty years ago we saw it. Boats were taking people everywhere. There was a vital connectivity that was happening,” said Steven Sego, founder of Friends of the Fast Ferry, in Kitsap County. “Our descendants will regret that we didn’t make a bigger effort to build out marine transportation.”
The state Legislature, reacting to local requests “to better connect communities throughout the 12-county Puget Sound region,” spent $350,000 for a Puget Sound Regional Council study that attracted 10,000 public comments online. The 2021 report mentioned 45 possible routes and seven leading contenders, such as Kenmore to the University of Washington, or Renton to South Lake Union. Des Moines wasn’t in the study, which focused more on commuter services, said Josh Brown, PSRC executive director.
Kitsap Transit launched Bremerton, Kingston and Southworth foot ferries to Seattle with a voter-approved sales tax increase in 2016, sharing the water and a Pier 50 dock with two King County water taxis.
Other ideas have come and gone, from a direct Seattle-Port Townsend run to a 14-seat microferry crossing Lake Union.
To be sure, a 60-passenger boat won’t ease congestion in a four-county region where land vehicles cover 88 million miles per day.
But it might leave a wake in Des Moines, a suburb of 32,000 with ambitions to grow. The city will spend $500,000 to $600,000 of its funds on this year’s pilot, Matthias said.
The boat will leave Des Moines on Wednesdays through Sundays at 10 a.m., noon, 2 and 4 p.m., and leave Seattle southbound at 11 a.m., 1, 3, and 5 p.m. Trips are free the first week, followed by $10 each way for adults, $5 for seniors and active military, and free for children 13 and younger. With limited funds and crew Des Moines has initially tailored service hours to all-day visitors, but the city wants to add morning commute trips, Matthias said. Online reservations are recommended and a few sailings are fully booked.
The visitor dock has room to host another boat, said city harbor master Scott Wilkins. Future ferries could be battery-charged, at the same time Washington State Ferries replaces its diesel fuels with dockside charging stations.
Des Moines offers the only marina between Seattle and Tacoma. The cruising distance of 15 nautical miles to either city is just shy of the 17-knot range of rechargeable ferries, said Peter Philips, Des Moines’ maritime consultant. “Our long-term vision is, we will be attractive to the technologists, designers and builders of electric boats, that want to demonstrate the viability of the boats,” he said.
A new ferry would bring attention to the city’s waterfront investment, which Matthias estimates will reach $50 million to $100 million. A new breakwater wall, public restrooms, and a small shelter for events are built or nearly finished next to the 830-slip marina. Terraced Overlook II Park rises above the public beach.
Where vines cover a bluff, the city will build “Marina Steps,” inspired by Harbor Steps in Seattle, to provide a traffic-free walk downhill. Plans are brewing for a bioswale along South 223rd Street. There might even be a waterfront hotel.
He hopes some travelers, especially younger or carless people, will combine foot ferries with a King County Metro 635 shuttle bus, from the marina to Angle Lake light-rail station, the city’s industrial park nearby, and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Ferry travelers can ride shuttles or walk uphill to the 536-resident Wesley senior housing campus, where 65 cottages are under construction.
Matthias wouldn’t specify how many riders the Chilkat must carry to demonstrate success. The service needs to attract visitors to Des Moines, not just people going to Seattle, said Philips.
Pro-ferry studies tend toward hyperbole, even asserting the Des Moines route adds disaster resilience if a quake or flood isolates Green River Valley warehouses. And the city’s survey of 329 people found that among 158 polled from South King County, 60% said they’re likely to try the ferry — a doubtful result across a sprawling area of a half-million residents.
The only way to know is to run some boats.
Though he co-sponsored PSRC study money, House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said he’s skeptical about subsidizing a Puget Sound foot-ferry fleet. Capital costs to build boats and docks are too high, compared to boosting ridership on existing buses and trains, he said.
“It’s better than a person driving a single-occupancy vehicle, but it’s the only thing it’s better than,” Fey said. Tourist-oriented and private passenger vessels are worth encouraging, he said.
No easy feat
King County’s Vashon and West Seattle water taxis steadily improved from 307,640 daily passengers in 2010 to 701,608 trips in 2019, before dropping to 286,943 last year amid the pandemic, county data says. But even in 2019, they served only 117 riders per operating hour, says the National Transit Database, while fares recovered 47% of the $7.2 million operating cost.
Compared to land and concrete for highways, “the water is free,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. So fast ferries look like a quick solution.
“Traffic sucks, and most places don’t have great access to transit,” he said. The downside is private operators can’t profit, so citizens must be persuaded to pay tax subsidies, something Des Moines might find worthwhile, he said.
“It’s the same rationale to build a streetcar in South Lake Union. It may or may not work as well as they think, but it looks better than the same old bus, and has some cachet in the world of real estate development.”
Kitsap Transit’s newest route began in March 2021 between Southworth and Seattle, but ridership is still low, said Executive Director John Clauson. Among other hurdles, three Kitsap ferries share King County’s Pier 50 dock, where commuters might wait 20 or 30 minutes for a berth to open, he said. Kitsap Transit wishes to build a new dock but will need federal aid, he said.
In the long run, Clauson predicted foot ferries will proliferate. The Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce is interested in a boat to Bremerton that avoids crowded Highway 305 and the Agate Pass Bridge, while Sego, with Friends of the Fast Ferry, favors a Bremerton boat to growing Silverdale. Kitsap Transit has shown interest in a futuristic electric, low wake boat.
“The waterways worked very well in years past, and they’re still around,” Clauson said.
Passenger ferries offer a practical way to enjoy Puget Sound and escape congestion, agrees David B. Williams, author of “Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound.”
“People bring up the Mosquito Fleet, because it sounds good,” he said, but the old boats were slow, unregulated, and might even sink or explode. Williams knows of only one Mosquito Fleet boat still in regular passenger service — the wood-hulled Carlisle II, built in 1917 and restored in 2021, between Port Orchard and Bremerton. They’re a far cry from sleek modern hydrofoils gliding at 40 knots.
“If they really wanted nostalgia, it would be funkier,” he said.