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Is Bremerton fast ferry's economic wake worth a tax hike?

March 10, 2013

PART 2 of 2: Leaders say taxes are necessary to subsidize the vessel that would enable a 30-minute crossing to Seattle.

By Josh Farley and Ed Friedrich of the Kitsap Sun

March 10, 2013 0

It has the boat, but no money to run it.

Kitsap Transit's efforts to operate a fast passenger ferry between Seattle and Bremerton is touted by local leaders as nothing short of an economic stimulus for the Kitsap Peninsula. A federally funded tried-and-tested vessel capable of running the route in 35 minutes now rests in a Port Townsend dry dock.

But with a state ferry system reluctant to return to passenger-only ferry service, the effort will have to come from within the county, likely along with new taxes to operate it.

"The bottom line is there's not going to be operation of this ferry without voter-approved funding," said Kitsap County Commissioner Josh Brown, a member of Kitsap Transit's board of directors.

Historically, that means rough waters ahead for the hydro-foiled catamaran named the Rich Passage 1. The transit agency's two previous attempts in 2003 and 2007 to run passenger ferries from Bremerton as well as Southworth and Kingston failed at the ballot box.

This time is different, leaders like Brown, Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent and others say, thanks to a state-of-the-art vessel capable of putting out a smaller wake that does not damage shorelines and bulkheads on its journey, but still accomplishes the task of crossing Puget Sound in 35 minutes ? a prospect they say would spur economic development in the region.

Preliminary findings indicate the Rich Passage 1 can operate through its namesake snaky strait, between Bainbridge Island and South Kitsap, without its wakes damaging the beaches, according to a research firm that's part of an eight-year, $12.7 million federally-funded project tasked with solving the wake problem.

That project climaxed in 2012 with four months of passenger service mostly during commuter times, offering a taste of what 35 minute service would be like. The 117-passenger ferry started running 40 trips a week in June and bumped them to 60 in September.

But while federal money funded that experiment, it can't contribute to continued operations. And if Kitsap Transit can't find a way to put the vessel into service, it can't continue to own it under its obligations to the feds.

At a minimum, Kitsap Transit has entered an agreement with state officials to operate Rich Passage 1 when problems arise with the state ferries' aging fleet. But long-term, the transit agency will have to come up with a business plan on how to operate ? and where to find money to operate with.


Fast ferries have a lackluster track record here. Despite a ferry run to Seattle that carries the highest percentage of passengers to cars of any route in Washington State Ferries' system, attempts to operate a fast ferry to and from Bremerton have endured failure after failure.

Washington State Ferries introduced them to Bremerton in 1984, with the 319-seat Tyee. It bought the 250-passenger Skagit and Kalama in 1989, one to expand the Bremerton route, the other to start service to Vashon Island.

Residents along Rich Passage claimed the boats' wakes were damaging the shoreline. A WSF consultant found that if they continued to run at full speed, they would probably speed up beach erosion and bulkhead deterioration. In the summer of 1990, the state slowed them to less than 12 knots through Rich Passage, increasing the travel time from 40 minutes to 55 minutes, barely faster than car ferries.

Washington State Ferries, to decrease both the wakes and crossing times, acquired the 350-passenger Chinook in 1998 and Snohomish in 1999. They skimmed between terminals in 30 minutes, but didn't pass the wake test. Shoreline residents sued, resulting in a permanent slowdown. The boats continued to run until September 2003 when WSF decided it could no longer afford to operate slowed fast ferries.

In return, the Legislature granted Kitsap Transit the ability to ask voters to support a passenger-only ferry plan with service from Bremerton, Southworth and Kingston to downtown Seattle. In November 2003, the agency asked for a local sales tax increase of 3/10s of 1 percent plus a license tab increase of 3/10 of 1 percent. Voters rejected the proposition, 61.6 percent to 38.6 percent.

Kitsap Transit and Kitsap Ferry Co. ran a public-private ferry venture from Aug. 1, 2004 to March 30, 2007. It offered one round trip in the morning and one in the afternoon. Crossing time was 40 minutes. Tickets cost $7 each way.

Kitsap Transit paid $44,300 per month to lease the 196-passenger Melissa Ann, $7,000 a month to use the Seattle dock and for fuel. The money came from a federal grant for leasing vessels. The agency sought a local sales tax increase to continue its support and add routes from Kingston, Southworth and Port Orchard. The measure, floated to voters in 2007, which would have levied a local sales tax increase of 3/10s of 1 percent, was defeated 54.5 percent to 45.5 percent, and transit board discontinued aid to Kitsap Ferry Co.

Owner Greg Dronkert said he had to suspend service because of lower-than-expected ridership, high fuel prices and difficulty competing with state car ferries, which charged $6.50 per round trip but only collected the money in Seattle. People could walk onto the boat in Bremerton without paying a cent.


With the long history of stumbles, is there any reason to believe a fast ferry route can ever succeed? John Clauson, Kitsap Transit executive director, thinks the research project indicates it can with a 30-minute crossing.

Rich Passage 1's 2012 experimental ridership fell below forecasts, in large part because people couldn't use their monthly passes and stuck to the car ferries. When the Rich Passage 1 provided emergency service for WSF in December and could accept all of its payment options, its popularity shot up. And there was an unexpected number of reverse commuters ? Seattle residents coming west in the morning to the shipyard.

Washington State Ferries called upon Kitsap Transit's speedy foot ferry, Rich Passage 1, during a crisis, and could do so again, but is there a bigger future for the low-wake boat?

"The demand is clearly there," Clauson said.

He said much of the economic development would come in the growth of Bremerton's "bedroom" community: those in King County tired of long car commutes who would relocate here, where cost of living is lower and quality of life is higher.

The prospect of a 30-minute or so crossing is viewed as an economic development tool, and always has been viewed that way. When the Chinook and Snohomish were making half-hour runs, it set off a mini growth spurt.

Mike Miller, partner at Bremerton-based Rice Fergus Miller, an architecture firm, was one of those who left King County for a waterfront home in Kitsap.

"It was a big part of our decision to move here," he said. "We were looking for a location that was a little less hectic than living in Seattle."

Mike Eliason, executive director of the Kitsap County Association of Realtors, said that anytime a fast ferry has been operated on the Bremerton-Seattle run, there's a "significant increase in economic activity," notably, an increase in homebuyers.

The direct and indirect benefits of such a ferry would outweigh the costs of its operation, Eliason believes. He uses the example of residents on the east side of Puget Sound relocating to Kitsap for the shorter commute.

"You're moving a new family into the community that wouldn't otherwise be here," he said.

Mike Strube, president and CEO of the Bremerton Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Eliason. He said Bremerton's lower cost of living, lighter traffic and proximity to the water and nature make it ripe for a surge brought by a 35-minute commute.

"You could be sitting in mass transit and riding home to your waterfront condo, that costs half as much as your place in North Bend where you spend an hour and a half in traffic each day," Strube said as a comparison.

Tying together Bremerton and Seattle more closely would begin to change a long-running perception that West Sound is too distant to those east of Puget Sound for development, said John Powers, executive director of the Kitsap Economic Development Alliance.

"On the I-5 corridor, they look east north and south before they look west," he said.

Some economists said the economic impact of Rich Passage 1's operation would be difficult to quantify. Gareth Green, chairman of Seattle University's Department of Economics, said development could come in four places: people that get new jobs in Seattle thanks to the closer connection; more tourists making the trek if the run is marketed effectively; people moving to Bremerton since the trip's shorter; and the growth in the number of commuters overall going through Bremerton.

Green's gut feeling? "I would be surprised if any of the four impacts turned out to be large, and might be almost undetectable in the short-run," he said.

But the longer the run would last, the more tangible its impact. Richard Zerbe, an economics professor at the University of Washington, said he believes initiating the service would indeed increase foot traffic between Bremerton and Seattle.

"No doubt the effects would be an increase in traffic," he said. "And as time goes on, it would get larger."

Retired Kitsap Transit executive director Dick Hayes, an architect in building and bringing the Rich Passage 1 to Bremerton, believes Kitsap Transit should operate not one, but three routes in the interest of serving more citizens. He acknowledges the failures of the Kingston run (he suggests a smaller boat to serve the route to save money) and believes the Southworth route to Seattle could be popular from the get-go.

On the Bremerton run, he sees mixed service ? the state car ferries plus a "premium" service with Rich Passage 1 at rush hour.

"This ferry would radically change Bremerton," he said.

But how would the service be funded? It's unlikely ticket revenues could cover the costs.

Clauson says passenger-only ferries typically require around a 50 percent subsidy for operating costs. Buses, he said, typically recoup only about a fifth of their costs through fares.

Clauson said Kitsap Transit's board could discuss a variety of options, including the motor vehicle excise tax, sales tax, property taxes, and other revenue generators.

King County, for instance, imposed a property tax increase of 5.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value Jan. 1, 2008 to pay for passenger ferries from Vashon Island and West Seattle to downtown. It lowered the amount in November 2009 to a third of a cent per $1,000 to free up funds for Metro bus service.

Clauson's not opposed to help from the state but said he'd prefer to have local control of the vessel to avoid the "bureaucratic" process at the state level in favor of a direct board that could answer to the community quickly and directly.

Hayes doesn't believe the service can survive without a subsidy from local taxpayers, either.

On a typical week, close to 2,000 more vehicles took the ferry to Seattle than came back to Bremerton on the route, and drivers say the cost makes all the difference.

"If you think you're going to run this out of the fare box, we need to take your drugs away," he said.

Kitsap Transit's board of directors, composed of local elected leaders, will discuss the ferry's future in the coming weeks and months. Kitsap County Commissioner Brown said sustaining existing transit services ? its bus routes and foot ferries between Bremerton, Annapolis and Port Orchard ? will be the top priority. Beyond that, he said it will depend on which way the board chooses to go. Brown's own opinion, like many other elected officials, is that the boat would be a boon to Bremerton.

"I think it really would put Bremerton on the map," he said.

Josh Farley thumbnail
About Josh Farley

Josh Farley covers Bremerton for the Kitsap Sun and is the editor of the Sun’s Bremerton Beat blog. He leads a story walk each month to take readers where news breaks in the community, and hosts a monthly trivia night at the Manette Saloon to test their news knowledge. An Oregon native and St. Mary’s College of California graduate, he’s been with the Sun 10 years.

Ed Friedrich thumbnail
About Ed Friedrich

Ed Friedrich is the Kitsap Sun’s transportation and military affairs reporter. He has worked for the paper for 32 years.

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