King County Water Taxi by Flikr user paulkimo90
King County Water Taxi by Flikr user paulkimo90

Yesterday, the Transportation Choices Coalition (and the Kitsap Sun the day before) wrote about a most unfortunate component of WSDOT’s plans to upgrade and retrofit Colman Dock. From TCC:

 WSDOT is undergoing a process to plan for the replacement of the Colman ferry terminal.  We fully support preservation projects and our state’s ferry system, but the current replacement project will eliminate the existing passenger ferry dock, which will threaten the King County water taxi and other passenger ferry services in and out of Downtown Seattle.

In addition to the Vashon Island and West Seattle water taxis, the Sun notes that, within the next few years, there will most likely be three cross-Sound public agencies operating passenger ferries to Colman Dock, from Port Townsend, Kingston and Bremerton. After 2015, where those services will dock, and how the money will be found to construct or upgrade such a dock, is not at all clear.

It appears that the design choices that have lead to this outcome arise from a desire to scale back the project to the point that a full Environmental Impact Statement isn’t required, saving the WSDOT that time and cost, but likely foisting those expenses on agencies running passenger ferries when they are forced to build a replacement. If so, this would be a remarkably perverse outcome, because (at the risk of stating the obvious) moving a single person in a small ferry has a vastly smaller environmental footprint than moving that person in a car on a large ferry.

There’s another, more fundamental point: Colman Dock is a terrible place for a car ferry. Almost all of the difficulties the Waterfront Seattle team face in building a human-scale, pedestrian-oriented waterfront arise from the fact that the waterfront simply has too many cars on it, and the presence of WSF’s car ferries are a major contributing factor, forcing the team to work around a huge roadway cross-section south of Marion that’s needed to accommodate cars queueing for or disembarking the ferries. Pedestrians are the ones who need direct access to the city streets; cars primarily need direct access to the highways. In any sensible transportation-planning world, WSF would be moving their operations away from Colman Dock, perhaps into the border of the industrial area near Piers 46-48 or even further south.

I can’t help but draw a parallel between WSDOT’s handling of this issue and their handling of the transit interface between the south end of Seattle and the new SR-99 viaduct in SODO, which I wrote about in December. In that case, WSDOT focused on designing a road around cars and offloaded the responsibility of figuring out the transit interface to King County Metro, contributing nothing financially to that study nor to the capital work that will arise from it. It seems that WSDOT hasn’t yet got the memo that whatever may or may not work in the rest of the state, the problems in Seattle are primarily about moving people, not moving cars.

Fortunately, unlike the SR-99 project, the Colman Dock project is still in its infancy, and you can have a say in the matter. Tomorrow afternoon, WSDOT is holding a public meeting to provide information and obtain feedback from the public. I encourage you to attend, or, if you can’t, provide feedback via the online survey or email. Comments must be received by March 15th.

Meeting details and flyer:

Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012
3:30 – 6:00 p.m.
Puget Sound Regional Council
Board Room
1011 Western Ave., Suite 500

59 Replies to “WSDOT Plans Would Displace Seattle Passenger Ferries”

  1. While a more southern Colman Dock may make sense on the land side (not sure that it does, myself), it’s probably impossible on the marine traffic side. With large container ships (and tug boats, and bunker barges, and Coast Guard vessels) constantly heading in and out of the east waterway, it’s troublesome enough for the ferries to get to and from the dock as it is.

    Farther north would be my recommendation. What’s that big empty pier next to the Aquarium doin’ these days? I betcha Seattle Parks and Recreation could use the money.

    1. What’d be just as bad as Colman Dock, since the waterfront pier park (which really could use some work – and will likely get it in the waterfront rebuild) sits right in theddle of the waterfront – even more so than the current terminal.

      1. Worse than Coleman Dock, actually. Cars leaving Coleman only have to travel a few blocks to the highways. Cars leaving an aquarium dock would have nowhere to go except through the area we’re trying to make more pedestrian-scale. Unless, perhaps, they went straight into a new tunnel under the bluff that connected to the Deeply Boring Tunnel.

      1. Fauntleroy is most likely not an option. I doubt the current dock could handle the extra traffic and every attempt at expanding the dock has been met with opposition by residents there.

      2. I say it’s about time we start meeting the business-as-usual rebuild with resistance here.

      3. Harbor Island? R U Serious? Might as well drop passengers in the middle of the bay instead. The downtown end of that route is the reason for that boat.

    2. Agreed.

      The current location demonstrates the respect WSDOT has for passenger ferries.

      The temporary argosy location made the water taxi pleasant.
      Moving the dock north of the aquarium (pier62?) integrated with the rest of the waterfront rebuild, has the potential to add people to the waterfront year round.

    1. Sure, and you could do that from the vicinity of Piers 46 and 48, which would shift the cars right to the south edge of the waterfront, while still providing decent pedestrian access to Pioneer Square and the city. Or, WSDOT could continue to use Colman Dock but figure out a way to keep the passenger ferry floats.

      Presumably if the Rich Passage fast passenger ferry becomes a permanent fixture (a moderate-sized “if”, I admit), lots of people riding the Bremerton car ferries will change to that service.

  2. One might look at the BC and AK car ferries. They all dock far from downtown in the major towns and cities. It is a real pain for foot passengers in Juneau, a significant service hub, where there is no bus service anytime and taxi service in the dark hours is sketchy at best, but for the most part it works.

    Make sure foot ferries have bicycle room and have them serve the Pier 53 area.

    1. Not really comparable systems. People are not commuting daily between Vancouver Island and downtown Vancouver. It’s general purpose traffic and an outlying terminal is appropriate. Similarly for the AK ferry, it is an occasional departure system and not a commuter ferry.

      Now, what about putting the car ferries up in North Elliott bay near the new Cruise Ship docks?

      1. What? I thought Alaska was those mountains across Puget Sound!

        (Actually once had a tourist state this to me in Seattle. Boy was he pissed he still had to drive on to Bellingham and that was before he heard the price and travel time.)

  3. Port Townsend did this years ago. The ferry dock used to be right in the center of town, and the queuing cars clogged all the town up. The new terminal was built about 8 blocks to the south, outside of the downtown area, to better address car queuing and in-town mobility. This restored Water Street to a quieter, more walkable place.

  4. Moving the car ferry terminal south is the dumbest idea I have ever heard. That idea is the type of idea that comes from an occasional user of the Washington State Ferries and not a commuter (like me). Most foot-passengers do not take the passenger only ferries and that’s unlikely to change. The reason for this (in the case of Bremerton)is that:
    1) passengers prefer the free ride Eastbound on the car ferries whereas passenger only ferries have always costed money both direction.
    2) passengers are much more willing to take a more frequent slower ferry than a less frequent fast ferry.

    The foot ferries that have ran in Bremerton mainly appeal to wealthy travelers or passengers going to sporting events. So moving the dock away from downtown would screw everyone else. Take the Bremerton or Bainbridge car ferry to Seattle some time…. you’ll note that a significant percentage of the passengers are foot passengers.

    1. Cost structures are easy to change, and of course we’d match the current frequency. We’d want to create a foot ferry system that matches or exceeds the current service. Once cars are shifted elsewhere, it’s possible even more people will take the new foot ferry than currently walk on*. This would give us the opportunity to increase service.

      * My co-worker, for one, that drives his vanpool on the ferry to park 2 blocks away from the Colman Dock – with no car ferry he’d just park at the other side of the water and walk on.

      1. And pay twice as much. No, excuse me, three times as much. Considering that passenger only ferry fares are significantly more than the car ferry’s Westbound fare… and you have to pay both ways. Also all of the tourists (there’s a lot) who use the ferries between Seattle and Bainbridge/Bremerton would disappear. Why? Because you have no outdoor decks on the front of the fast ferries and passengers LOVE the front areas of the car ferries. And the tourists don’t want to walk away from downtown to catch a ferry.

      2. Fares come from costs, and it costs a whole lot less to build and run a foot ferry than one of our massive car ferries.

        Your tourist point is valid. But we could have a much nicer waterfront if we removed some of the car traffic, which should help tourism.

      3. But you know that as you scale up, it costs less per passenger to run. A Jumbo MK II can accommodate 212 cars and 2500+ pedestrians. Even the Super class on the Bremerton run can and does ferry 144 cars and 2500 passengers. The largest foot-ferries have a capacity well under 100.

      4. “The largest foot-ferries have a capacity well under 100.”

        Rubbish. Even the water taxis are perfectly capable of carrying more than that. KC Ferries has chosen to rate them well below their actual limits to avoid Coastguard/DHS rules that require more crew and security theater for larger vessels.

      5. The Chinook and Snohomish (the two passenger-only fast ferries [POFF]) cost $23 million (combined) to build in the late 1990s, which is a heck of a lot less than what we spent on the three Kwa-di Tabil-class ferries (roughly $180 million I think). The thing is, though, we don’t charge ferry fares based on the capital cost of the boats (although perhaps we should).

        WSF publishes information on the financial performance of all its routes. Page 19 is particularly interesting because it details the revenues and expenditures from the Vashon Island passenger route. That route had the lowest farebox recovery ratio of *any* route in the system, including Port Townsend-Keystone and Anacortes-Sidney BC (which are generally regarded as the worst-performing routes). Anacortes-Sidney BC has similar overall traffic levels, but the difference is that they charge huge fares for the cars and consequently make up much more of the operating costs, even though the Chelan (or Elwha) is more expensive to run than the POFFs largely due to crewing requirements, ie labor.

        I can’t find numbers from when the Bremerton pax-only run was in operation, but by all accounts the POFFs were really expensive to run and so while they probably saw somewhat higher ridership, I can’t imagine they did much better. Even the current run from Kingston to downtown is struggling and may not survive the year.

        Now obviously WSF has been subsidizing their current operations, since the system as a whole loses money operationally. That money has come from various sources over the years since I-695 was passed, but those have mostly been highway funds. My point here is that when it comes to the ferries cars are subsidizing people, both from interfund transfers to keep the system running and from the fares charged. Pax-only ferries have not proved to be cost-effective or sustainable, and we shouldn’t treat them as any kind of savior for cross-Sound travel needs.

        With that said, attempting to shift the ferry terminal down to Pier 46/48 would certainly improve the waterfront for people. At a least the Colman Dock redesign should incorporate some method of handling the passenger ferries, because demand, however small and varied, does exist and we should support that.

        Finally, PSRC published a nice little study a few years ago which analyzes pax-only ferries. The study was done before the economy went downhill and so the conclusions don’t really seem applicable at the moment, especially in light of the recent real-world difficulties experienced with pax-only ferries.

      6. @Jason:

        Great synopsis. The problem with the Bremerton POF’s were that when they were forced to slow down going through Rich Passage, their travel time increased to 50 minutes, and for 10 minutes more travel time, you got a bigger space to spread out in. But they were fun when they could go the whole way at speed. I remember a run that took just over 25 minutes. And they burned a bunch of fuel, which is the other reason the POFs were expensive to run.

        Cars are subsidizing people (walk-ons)? Yes to some extant, but then look at how low the car portion of the fare is on a per mile basis compared to what BC Ferries charges per mile (or do it per km for both if that’s easier.) Also, of course in Washington State, the car ferries had access to gas tax funding since they are “roads” that the passenger ferries did not.

  5. The car ferries shouldn’t be moved until there is regular, frequent passenger ferry service from Downtown to Bainbridge. At that point, car ferry service should be substantially reduced and fares should account for the fact that it’s so much more expensive to move a car over the sound in a gigantic ship than it is to ferry a crowd of pedestrians.

  6. Colman Dock, in a much reduced form should continue to exist to provide frequent cheap passenger only ferry service between Downtown and Bainbridge and Bremerton, and a separate car (and passenger) ferry terminal should be built just south of the West Seattle terminus of the water taxi for the following reasons:

    Car ferry resources should be prioritized for getting residents and cars from the Seattle area to Bremerton and Bainbridge, neither of which are particularly navigable without a car. Secondary to this consideration should be getting cars from Bainbridge and Bremerton to regions in Seattle that lack good transit service. Notably auto ferry service should not be providing trips from Bremerton or Bainbridge to downtown Seattle or the surrounding neighborhoods. That is a huge waste of urban, ferry and road resources, and significantly dampens the ability of waterfront and central Seattle more generally to be a pedestrian friendly environment. Thus, car oriented service should be less frequent and focused on non-commuting trips or reverse commute trips and in turn, passenger ferry service should be frequent and provide fast service to downtown Seattle, with easy transfers to other modes of transit.

    With all that in mind I propose just west of harbor island (and south of the water taxi) as the sight for a new car terminal primarily because it is relatively close to downtown, and easily accessible to the Seattle freeway system (about a mile from the West Seattle Freeway with room to expand the access road if desired), making it readily suitable for the longer distance, non downtown oriented trips it should be used for.

    1. OK, but why not encourage more cars to stay in Bremerton and Winslow during the day when the driver could walk-on and get to their final destination by transit?

    1. If there was a like button, I’d click it. The fact that WSDOT is so willing to simply disregard transit riders (as it did on the Montlake cut and with the Viaduct) is disconcerting.

      1. From now on, whenever I read a piece like this that makes their priorities even clearer than they were before, I’m going to call them the WSDOMA, or Washington State Department of Moving Automobiles, because that’s what they are.

  7. Passenger ferries are a waste of money. People who don’t want to take their car can ride on the car ferries.

    1. For those that didn’t bother to read the post above –
      most passenger ferries are for service to areas that don’t have car ferries already coming into downtown.

    2. Car ferrys are a waste of money. We should eliminate all the car ferry runs to locations with a land-route available, and only provide passenger ferry service to locations with functional mass-transit.

      Why the hell are we subsidizing Bainbridge/Bremerton/Kingston cross-sound commuters? Are we just going to keep supporting these mosquito-fleet suburbs forever for historical reasons, at extreme cost to the State?

      Yeah, I know, cutting the service is probably impractical and downright cruel, but I’d really like to see us move in that direction long-term. The Vashon and San Juan routes can stay, as they’re the only vehicle route to the islands, but everything else should be phased out.

      1. I’m horrified at the image you’re giving me of what the Narrows Bridge would look like… though more likely is that Bremerton would grow to Everett-like size and either get or keep a passenger run to Seattle.

        (Yes, I know you’re probably being intentionally provocative, but still.)

      1. If they coordinated their schedules better at Edmonds, there would not need to be a Kinston to Seattle Ferry.

  8. My first reflex would be to move the Passenger floats to the newly renovated “Festival Pier.” Designs for the pier have been nice, but something’s always bugged me about a purely ornamental space on what is historically a very busy working waterfront. The Passenger ferries lower capacity would not overwhelm the park space, I would think.

    Second possible route is that, while their location would require the passenger ferries to cross the larger car ferries’ routes from Colman, the slips currently used by Argosy would suit a passenger service quite well. Of course, that would require moving Argosy somewhere and I doubt they’d be in love with the idea.

  9. As a former WSDOT employee, I have to ask – how about doing some research and learning a little more about what’s going on here?

    Not one person has mentioned that the passenger ferries (AKA Water Taxis) terminal moved from Pier 55 (the Argosy pier) to the current Pier 50 location adjacent to Colman Dock less than a year ago. Pier 55 was a much better and more visible spot and from what I understand ridership dropped off a ton after the move happened.

    The current location is by no means ideal for the Water Taxi terminal – there are actually plenty of better, more central piers next to a lot more foot traffic. King County Marine Division, who operates the ferry, is currently studying new locations for the water taxi terminal after the Colman Dock replacement. If anything, it’s an opportunity to place the terminal in a more central, visible spot to maximize ridership.

    This whole piece comes off as far too alarmist and knee-jerk, without having done the due diligence to learn about what’s actually happening here.

    1. With the exception of the West Seattle service, weren’t the routes that land at Pier 50 all once served by WashDOT/WSF passenger ferries until the legislature bent over and took one from Timmy?

      1. Only Seattle/Bremerton. The advantage of pax-only ferries on that route is a travel time savings of 10-30 min, depending on how fast you can go through Rich Passage.

        Seattle/Bainbridge has not had WSF pax-only ferry service because there wasn’t much point; the auto ferries have more than sufficient capacity, and the route isn’t long enough to achieve any travel time savings (any time you could make up via faster transit speed is lost during docking maneuvers; since the auto ferries are double-ended they don’t have to turn around)

  10. Like it or not, if we want to have a functional ferry system for moving people between downtown and Bainbridge/Bremeton, there is no real choice other than to have the car ferry continue to go downtown.

    If we relocated the car ferry to somewhere other than downtown, we would have two choices:

    1) Make the car ferry the only ferry and anyone who wants to ride the ferry without driving on would have to find a way to get there. For most people, the downtown ferry terminal is far more accessible by transit that the ferry terminals at any other location, be it West Seattle, Kingston, or Mukilteo. Move the ferry south and almost anyone coming from North Seattle who wants to take a bus there would have to transfer. Downtown, most people can get there with a one seat ride.

    2) Operate separate ferries for cars and passengers. While this option would be the ideal if we had an unlimited money to spend, the reality is we don’t. And while it is cheaper to run a passenger ferry than a car ferry, it’s more expensive to run a passenger ferry and a car ferry than just a car ferry. And it’s not feasible to find the money to pay for it by reducing the frequency of the car ferry because any reduction in the frequency of the car ferry would dramatically reduce capacity on a system that already has long enough waits as it is. In theory, you could do a huge fare hike on the car ferry to keep demand in line with the reduced supply, but that would just get people mad and the politicians would would make such a decision would pay for it on the next election cycle.

    Given the huge passenger demand of people going into downtown during the peak, my guess is there would still be a passenger ferry into downtown during the peak. But whoever operates it would probably try to reduce costs by keeping the boat idle during the off-peak (possible exception for special events) which would mean that anyone in Seattle who wants to visit Bainbridge/Bremerton and doesn’t want to drive on the ferry would have to take a longer and less frequent bus ride to SODO, or wherever the car ferry terminal would end up being. Furthermore, a peak-only passenger ferry service would be extremely inefficient to operate because you’re paying the full capitol cost of a fleet of boats plus docks for a service that’s only operating a few trips a day. I would rather take advantage of the huge passenger capacity on the car ferries that has to be there anyway (it’s the only way the boat can be big enough to carry all those cars), rather than spend scarce transit dollars to operate a peak-only passenger ferry that would merely duplicate this capacity and not provide any additional mobility.

    Furthermore, for a passenger’s perspective, there are carpool advantages to having the car ferry go downtown, rather than to some out of the way place. With the car ferry where it is, it is possible to bus downtown, meet up with a driver on board the ferry, and carpool to wherever it is you’re going on the Kitsap side, avoiding the limitation of the very bare-bones bus service there. If the car ferry terminal is moved to some out of the way place, now the driver has to go out of the way to pick you up and, as the passenger, you have to get to the ferry early enough to allow for waiting in the car line. This is a loss for both the driver and the passenger.

    1. I don’t think we’re talking about option 1 here. Passenger ferry service definately belongs downtown. But I think you’re thinking about 2 a bit wrong – or discounted it as politically difficult(which it may be, but that doesn’t make it the wrong option. Moving the car ferry from downtown should boost ridership on a downtown passenger ferry. Reducing car service and bumping prices up to balance demand would also increase passenger ferry demand.

      I’m fairly sure that we have the walk-on demand already to justify an all day passenger ferry downtown. Shifting people from cars to feet would improve the efficiency of the system – it’s much cheaper to move a person than a car.

      1. Obviously I can’t list the exact costs of the different options, but my thinking was this. Build two separate ferry terminals, a passenger terminal close to downtown and a car terminal further away, say in West Seattle. Then cut car ferry frequency in half, running two boats instead of four, and amp up passenger ferry service to frequencies matching or exceeding current frequencies, which would be feasible due to the far smaller operating costs of smaller boats.

        Another option would be to reduce the scope of the Colman Dock ferry terminal, by similarly cutting car service in half while providing passenger service to fill in the frequency gaps, say two passenger ferries for every car ferry.

        Regardless, the reality is that an auto oriented Colman Dock has large negative externalities on the walkability of the waterfront, and to make no effort to ween people of the heavily subsidized auto ferry service is a farce. Somehow a newly designed ferry terminal should take into account the high costs of providing such a high level of auto ferry service.

    2. Also, even if we took option 1 we could still build a new dock further south along the waterfront, as the OP suggests, without sending everyone all the way to Fauntleroy or Edmonds.

  11. You probably don’t know but WSF is in partnership with a group from Washington State University consisting of architecture, engineering and construction management students to come up with redesigns for four of WSF’s terminals. Colman Dock is one of these terminals. As a member of the Seattle Colman group I encourage you to follow our class blog as we upload ideas we come up with until our final meeting with WSF in April. Our ideas have already received warm welcomings from both WSDOT and WSF from our last meeting with them in December. We’ve already taken into account the removal of the viaduct, the replacement of the seawall and the waterfront revitalization plan and are designing Colman Dock to incorporate into Waterfront Seattle. Follow us and if you have any ideas feel free to leave them.

  12. There has to be a design solution that would, using the current territory of Piers 40 through 52, allow Passenger Ferries to discharge at the northern side of today’s Pier 52, allow foot traffic from the car ferries to access the pedestrian overpass over Alaksan Way and route the car traffic southwards towards the southern side of Pier 48 where it can more easily access the hobbled-together “SR 519” allowing ultimate access to I-90, SR 99, the West Seattle Bridge and any other auto-orientated attractive nuisances I cannot think of right now.

    This would also help to eliminate the unnecessary pedestrian conflict that presently occurs when cars are discharged out of the north gate near the “new” Subway sandwich location.

    Pier 48 has sat for years. I don’t think the ferry to Alaska or car ferry to Victoria is going to restart anytime if ever. Get rid off it!

  13. I want real “foot ferries!”

    No seriously, there should be a place to either park a personal boat, or run a water taxi from the downtown waterfront. Off hours riding the ferry, the schedule is severely limited.

    As for moving the car ferries, North to Pier 90/91 with them. We want to dump that traffic off to the side of the city, not the center. And yes, add more passenger/bicycle runs to the current location.

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