Kitsap Transit gives go-ahead to launch Southworth fast-ferry service this year

Kitsap residents strongly support starting service to downtown Seattle without a backup vessel

PORT ORCHARD — Based on strongly supportive community input, Southworth fast ferry service is to begin sailings later this year without a backup vessel, Kitsap Transit announced Friday.

A community feedback survey gave the transit agency a decisive indication that Kitsap County residents — some 76 percent of respondents — want fast ferry service to launch this year, even if no spare vessel is available.

The transit agency sought the Kitsap County community’s input on whether to begin service this year without a spare vehicle available for backup or wait until Commander is available, likely sometime next year. For passengers, having Enetai out of service would necessitate a need to find transportation alternatives to and from Seattle. The Washington State Ferries’ Southworth-Vashon route and King County Water Taxi’s Vashon-Seattle route would be one such alternative.

“We wanted the community to weigh in on this question because they’re the ones who will be most impacted when the vessel has a mechanical issue,” John Clauson, executive director of Kitsap Transit, said in a news release.

“The community has spoken. Meanwhile, we’re working with Washington State Ferries to ensure this service is successful and has room to grow for decades to come.”

The survey was conducted beginning at the start of this month. The agency received more than 880 responses from people in the community, said Kitsap Transit spokesman Sanjay Bhatt.

Bhatt said the agency hopes to be able to begin service this year, as promised to Kitsap County voters four years ago when a sales-tax measure was placed before them to expand service across Puget Sound to downtown Seattle.

The primary vessel to handle sailings from Southworth to downtown Seattle — M/V Enetai, a 255-passenger bow loader — was delivered earlier this year to Kitsap Transit. But a delivery date for sister ship M/V Commander by Nichols Bros. Boat Builders of Whidbey Island hasn’t been determined, Bhatt said. The shipyard is “behind schedule due to disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the agency said in a news release.

Enetai and Commander will be the primary vessels operating the Southworth-Seattle and Kingston-Seattle fast ferry routes. Should Enetai have mechanical difficulties preventing it from sailing, the spare vessel would be pulled from the Kingston route and would temporarily take over the Southworth route. M/V Finest would serve as the spare vessel on the Kingston route, Bhatt said.

While the fast ferry system has had its share of mechanical issues and disruptions in its young existence, $593,064 in federal funding was recently awarded for preventative maintenance. It is expected to help mitigate future breakdowns, the agency said. The funding will pay for a wide range of preventive maintenance work to preserve and extend the life of the fast ferries.

Kitsap Transit said it also is focused on a multi-year redevelopment of the Southworth Ferry Terminal to better accommodate the fast ferry service. The agency, partnered with WSF, won a $2.25 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration for its portion of the preliminary engineering and design work.

The preliminary work, led by WSF, will consider whether to construct a new shoreside terminal building, add a second berthing slip for both transit agencies to use, and replace the timber trestle with concrete and steel, the dock and transfer span. Also under consideration is to provide shore-side electrification infrastructure and ADA-accessible sidewalks.

Kitsap Transit said the preliminary engineering and design work is to begin in 2023. No funds have yet been set aside for construction.