By MARK BRIANT
BREMERTON — As Kitsap Transit prepares for one of the most important votes this November in the history of passenger-only ferry service in the Puget Sound region, a stark fact emerged from a public survey conducted in September 2015:
Only four of 10 Kitsap residents said they had heard anything about plans to provide passenger-only ferry service between Kitsap County and Seattle.
Put another way, 60 percent of county residents had no idea there will even be a vote on the matter, or were aware of any plan.
“Public outreach is definitely going to be an important focus,” said Sanjay Bhatt, Kitsap Transit’s public information officer.
Voters will decide on Nov. 8 whether to increase the sales tax by 3/10s of 1 percent to fund passenger-only “fast ferry” service between Seattle-Bremerton, Seattle-Kingston, and Seattle-Southworth.
Supporters say expanded ferry service would boost Kitsap’s economy and provide easier access to peninsula residents for high-paying jobs across the water in Seattle.
Detractors claim the ferry service would be expensive and serve an elitist few at a cost to all Kitsap County residents, whether or not they use the service.
With that said, a bit of history, old and more recent, is in order:
Since the early 20th century, a fleet of tiny passenger-only ferries plied the waters of Puget Sound. In the absence of a true surface road system, they were often the best and only way to get across. This privately owned “mosquito fleet” served Seattle and, in alphabetical order, Bainbridge Island, Bellingham, Bremerton, Everett, Kirkland, Olympia, Port Townsend, Tacoma, Vancouver, Vashon Island, Victoria, and other ports in the region.
By 1935, the various ferry routes were consolidated and managed by a single operator, known as the Black Ball Line. Extensive road development gave commuters other options and the passenger ferries faded away after World War II. In 1951, the Legislature created Washington State Ferries, and this new agency gradually built up passenger-only ferry, or POF, service between Seattle and several Kitsap Peninsula docks.
But in the read-my-lips world of politics in the 1990s and 2000s, the public approved a series of anti-tax initiatives that served to virtually gut the WSF’s budget (along with many other state agencies).
In 2000, the POF system was still healthy. The system’s two catamaran-style passenger ferries, the Chinook and the Snohomish, carried 876,000 passengers between Bremerton and Seattle alone.
The main reason demand for POF service declined was longer crossing times. The big advantage the POF boats had over the larger, heavier passenger-vehicle ferries was speed: the crossing took just a bit more than 30 minutes, while car ferries took an hour each way. But a lawsuit by waterfront residents along Rich Passage attributed significant beach erosion to the large wakes driven up by vessels under full throttle.
As a result, Washington State Ferries was forced to idle its boats through the narrow channel, which eliminated the POF’s chief advantage. The service closed on Sept. 20, 2003.
The issue of wake damage was very real and, in 2005, Kitsap Transit took over a wave research study aimed specifically at Rich Passage. The research continued through 2013 and the wake study became known the world over as the cutting-edge of research in that field. Designers figured out that the new technology of high-speed, small-wake passenger ferries actually needed to speed up in Rich Passage in order to present the smallest wake possible.
Under a $5 million federal grant, Kitsap Transit built a 118-seat passenger-only ferry — the prototype for a new generation of passenger ferries. No local money was spent on construction of the federally funded boat, built by American Marine in Bellingham. Named Rich Passage I, the boat was launched in 2011 and in 2012 began four months of trial service. Practical study of the wake left by the boat in Rich Passage showed that the faster the ferry went, the less of a wake it left. The new service proved highly popular with commuters and attracted 33,500 riders during the short project.
The difference between the proposals, defeated by voters in 2003 and 2007, was that the latest proposal had a sustainable 20-year economic framework. In addition, voters and ferry riders made very clear that they wanted a level of service that served more than just commuters.
“We proved the scientific feasibility of the new ferries,” said John Clauson, executive director of Kitsap Transit. “Now we needed to demonstrate the business feasibility of a system like this.”
Under Phase 1, the notable elements included a commuter-based crossing schedule, with three round-trips in the morning and three more crossings in the late afternoon and evening. It would be funded by a 2/10ths of 1 percent Kitsap County-wide sales tax. Through every iteration of the plan, the system revolved around three key routes: Bremerton-Seattle, Kingston-Seattle and Southworth-Seattle.
During public outreach, it became clear that the public was not happy with certain details of the plan — such as the heavy emphasis on commuters. People wanted expanded service, so Kitsap Transit staff went back to the drawing board.
Phase II, which goes before voters on Nov., 8, contains the following key features:
- Funding. Startup is estimated to cost $48 million, which means launching the system, buying vessels and building terminals. Of this cost, nearly half, or 48 percent, is covered by federal grants, and 52 percent will be covered by the 3/10ths of 1 percent sales-tax increase.
So, for example, with the purchase of a $20 T-shirt, the consumer would pay an additional 6 cents in sales tax.
In addition, the plan provides for fares for low-income people and those who qualify for discounted fares. The budgeting mix also allows for $1.5 million for an additional 23,000 hours of bus service throughout the Kitsap Transit system.
- Annual operations: Projected to cost $11 million annually, of which fares will cover 28 percent and the sales tax 72 percent.
- Extended service: The Phase II proposal would have a commuter schedule from October to April, with extended service added between May and September.
The proposal has its detractors, just as it has its passionate supporters. One notable critic is Becky Erickson, the mayor of Poulsbo and a member of the Kitsap Transit governing board.
“I can sum it up in one sentence,” Erickson said. “It’s too expensive and it services too few people.”
Erickson has gone as far as to create her own PowerPoint deck that claims the proposal has inaccurate and bloated budget figures and an unrealistic timeline for the proposal.
Her budget claims drew a sharp retort from a fellow Kitsap Transit board member, Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent.
“Her numbers are not factual,” Lent said. “She’s pulling numbers from here and there, and most of them are from the Phase I plan, which is changed significantly from the Phase II plan that is going before voters in November.”
Clauson, Kitsap Transit’s executive director, took a broader view. “We vote for school levies even if we don’t have kids in school any more,” he said. “When you buy gasoline, the gas tax you pay may go to fix a road in Eastern Washington or in Vancouver. You may never drive on that road, but it benefits our entire society to get that work done.”
PROPOSAL ONLINE: www.kitsaptransit.com/agency-information/plan ning/passenger-only-ferry-business-plan.