By Mike De Felice
Special to the Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – Kitsap Transit is in the preliminary stages of examining the feasibility of mooring its Southworth-to-downtown Seattle fast ferry at Port Orchard’s Harper Pier.
A local group of pier users is concerned over the prospect, claiming the move would interfere with the community’s enjoyment of the pier.
“Harper Pier is used for everything from A to Z,” said James Heytvelt, co-founder of Friends of Harper Pier, a citizen’s group that considers itself a guardian of the pier. The group’s Facebook page has nearly 800 followers.
“Paddleboarders, scuba divers, photographers, fisherman, crabbers, squidders, walkers get out there and relax. It’s just a magical place where you can get out on the water,” Heytvelt said of the pier.
“When fishing or crabbing on the pier, you don’t want any disturbance that spooks the fish. The ferries will disturb the underlying tidelands. There are also million-dollar view homes in the area and owners don’t want to look over at great big ferry boats, but want to see views of Vashon Island, Blake Island, Bainbridge Island and the tips of the Olympic Mountains.”
Mooring the vessels in Port Orchard could also be harmful to the nearby shoreline and Harper estuary, Heytvelt said.
A recent post on a Port Orchard Facebook page read, “Kitsap Transit is trying to take away another local recreational use pier for their use and do away with public use.” Accompanying the post was a photo of a protest sign at the pier that read, “Stop Harper Dock Takeover.”
“I think that is inaccurate,” Kitsap Transit executive director John Clausen said of the claim that his agency, which operates the fast ferry system, would take over the Harper Pier.
If the pier is determined to be the appropriate place to dock the ferry, there would be no takeover of the pier, Clausen stated.
“It is certainly not our intention to go buy the dock and put up a gate at the shoreline and not let anyone go there. Our intentions are that we would preserve the access to the dock for the purposes the community has been using it for years,” he said.
Currently, when the fast ferry is not in use, it is moored in Bremerton. Kitsap Transit wants to move the ferry’s moorage location from Bremerton to a spot closer to the Southworth ferry terminal, where the fast ferry begins its daily runs.
Two primary reasons that transit officials say they want to change the ferry’s resting spot are to reduce operating expenses and mitigate the ferry’s environmental impacts from sailing to Bremerton several times a day, the executive director said.
The fast ferry operates during the weekday morning and evening commutes. Midday, the boat returns to Bremerton. Then at the end of each day, the boat again returns to that location.
During the four weekday trips to and from Bremerton, the vessel passes through Rich Passage, a narrow waterway between South Kitsap and Bainbridge Island. There is concern the wake of the 140-foot fast ferry is damaging the shorelines along the passage.
“We have to be very sensitive to the issue of wave damage to the beaches. We have to go very slowly through Rich Passage. This adds time for the route [and increases operating expenses],” Clausen noted.
The current trip the ferry makes from Southworth to Bremerton is 11 miles. By contrast, the distance from Southworth to Harper Pier is one mile, according to transit officials.
“If we could moor the vessels closer to Southworth, then obviously we would reduce the amount of time we are paying crews and save on fuel,” Clausen said.
The amount of savings from changing the moorage location has not yet been determined as it is early in the process, the transit chief said.
Bringing in the experts
Kitsap Transit has called on consulting firm KPFF to begin looking at whether Harper Pier would work as a moorage location for the ferry.
“I have asked [the consultants] to give me an artist’s rendition, something we could show the community of three different options [of how we could] moor these boats at the pier. This will give us something to show the community and start a dialogue,” Clausen said.
KPFF is an engineering firm with a branch that specializes in marine operations. The firm has worked on the water taxi program in King County and ferry operations in New York City, Clausen said. Kitsap Transit for several years has retained the firm to assist with projects in its ferry division, he added.
Clausen hopes to obtain drawings of what that mooring could look like by late September or October. When the renderings are finished, transit officials plan to present them at a community meeting. The initial review by the firm would also include compiling a list of design and environmental issues that would need to be examined down the road, he said.
“We are in the very early stage of seeing if the pier is even a viable option,” Clausen pointed out.
Considering Southworth as alternative
Another complaint voiced by the Friends of Harper Pier group is that Kitsap Transit should have first looked at docking the fast ferry at the Southworth terminal, Heytvelt said. Clausen said it’s a legitimate issue but replied, “The reason we haven’t looked at it at this point is that Southworth Pier’s future is kind of up in the air.”
Washington State Ferries is looking to modify the pier by narrowing it, moving the terminal off the pier to land, and adding a second car slip, he said.
“Southworth ferry terminal will be a consideration. But, its current state of flux is why we have not considered it at this point. That doesn’t mean we should rule it out,” he said.
Clausen said he has already reached out to WSF to see if there would be opposition to a study being conducted about docking the fast ferry at the Southworth terminal. There was no immediate objection by the state, he said.
“Before we make the final decision on whether we are going with Harper Pier or not, I think we need to also have an analysis of the Southworth dock to see if that is a better option.”
Clausen could not give a timeframe as to when that Southworth ferry dock site would be analyzed.
Meanwhile, the fast ferry run between Southworth and downtown Seattle at Pier 50 has been successful despite COVID having a major impact on ridership, Clausen said.
“I am actually pretty pleased with its performance. Ridership is slowly growing,” he said.
Daily boardings have averaged in the upper 200s. “On the 1st of September, we carried 301 boardings on the Southworth route,” he said. Ridership on the Southworth-Seattle route exceeds the number of passengers on the Kingston-Seattle route. The Bremerton-Seattle route leads the way in ridership, he said.