Port Townsend
Port Townsend from the water. Flikr user Andrew Albertson.

The Port Townsend Leader has the scoop on a possible new foot ferry service:

The Port of Port Townsend has submitted a draft of their passenger-only ferry plan for feedback from the Federal Transit Agency. The plan would create a Port Townsend-Seattle route for recreation and business use, starting out from May through September. […]

According to the draft plan, the terminals would be located at the Point Hudson Marina in Port Townsend and the Bell Harbor Marina, the heart of Seattle cruise ship operations. In order to compete with traditional ferry routes and other passenger-only ferries, the 42-mile crossing is planned to take 70-80 minutes.

The idea of such a service has been kicking around for many years, but it was the FTA’s unexpected award of a startup grant to the Port which has given the idea a chance at becoming reality. If it comes to fruition, such a ferry would provide a significant improvement to pedestrian and bike mobility in the region, and provide another great car-free getaway for Seattle-area residents.

The Port of Port Townsend‘s business plan seems to suffer none of the flaws which almost guaranteed the failure of the nearby Port of Kingston‘s ill-starred SoundRunner, which will cease at the end of this month. From the start, the Port has planned to provide no operating subsidy, for which there’s not likely to be a viable level of support in any taxing district in the Peninsula; the FTA grant is solely for capital improvements and boat procurement costs, and then the service must pay for itself. SoundRunner competed against a slower but cheaper (albeit also heavily subsidized) alternative commuter route, via the Kingston-Edmonds car ferry and north line Sounder; a pretty epic transit journey through Bainbridge is the only alternative between Seattle and Port Townsend.

More after the jump.

Perhaps most importantly, the primary target for this service will be travelers and visitors, rather than daily Seattle commuters (although there will be some of the latter). Port Townsend is a small town, but punches above its weight with some great restaurants and coffee shops, a busy art and culture scene, and a rare assemblage of beautiful Victorian architecture, all within walking distance of the waterfront. Thus, visitors on short getaways constitute a small but dependable market for this trip, and this choice of target market crucially allows for higher fares, a smaller boat, and a seasonal sailing pattern that hews closely to demand. All of these things are necessary, and, I hope, sufficient for the business plan to satisfy the FTA and pencil out in practice.

Port CEO Larry Crockett kindly answered a couple of my questions about the service. First, regarding bikes on board: any boat would include room for bikes, although as no boat has yet been leased or purchased, the precise capacity is unknown. As a bike-friendly town, and the gateway to the growing Olympic Discovery Trail, Port Townsend is a great place to take a bike, so this is a smart decision. Once the ODT is complete enough to ride between Port Townsend and Port Angeles without riding on the 101, this could be a component of some amazing bike plus ferry (plus train) loops.

Second, regarding the choice of Bell Harbor over Colman Dock: as we reported some months ago, WSDOT’s plans for the rebuilt Colman Dock did not, and still do not, include any provision for passenger ferries, beyond making space available in the design for foot ferry agencies to add their own dock. This regrettable omission jeopardizes any passenger-only service at Colman, as no passenger ferry agency has the funds to replace the existing passenger dock. Faced with that uncertainty at Colman, Bell Harbor was the obvious choice.

For most of my posts for STB, the topic is axing or restructuring unproductive or nonsensically-designed bus routes to improve service on high-performing routes; but the overarching subject is really making it not just possible, but easy to live in the city as an independent adult with a full life, without owning a car. Every rider-oriented Metro restructure, every new Zipcar location, every new (or improved) Cascades trip, every new bike trail, bridge and greenway, gets us a little bit closer to that goal, as does this new passenger ferry service, which is why I’m thrilled to see it advance closer to reality.

If you have questions or comments on the proposal, email info@portofpt.com and it’ll be considered along with other public feedback. Even if all you have to say is that this is a service you would use, consider submitting that as a comment. There’s still a lot of hurdles to be cleared before the first sailing, and supportive comments from likely riders certainly won’t hurt.

38 Replies to “Port Townsend Foot Ferry a Step Closer”

      1. It’s not Victoria, but it’s a decent weekend getaway, and the fares they’re proposing are less then half the Clipper, as is the travel time. For two people who share a car, that trip currently costs nearly that much in ferry fare and gas, and takes longer; for one person, this foot ferry would be cheaper. If you don’t have a car, and there are thousands in the city who don’t, the foot ferry is massively cheaper.

      2. PT is a great weekend getaway. I rode the foot ferry during the ferry replacement debacle and it was a fantastic service. It was a sad day when they discontinued it.

        It will be great when they get this service re-started and I will certainly use it at least occasionally.

      3. I think this could work as well. Port Townsend is one of the few weekend destinations around here that you really don’t need a car once you get there.

    1. I think the time is right and the plan is sensible. It works both ways too. There are many people in Port Townsend who will enjoy this way for a day trip to downtown Seattle.

  1. How does this compare to Dungeness Line bus fare/transit times? This foot ferry seems like it would be faster.

    I just looked at Jefferson County bus system and this would make for a great connection so that you could get from Port Angeles and even Victoria to Seattle through Port Townsend via public and private transport without needing a car.

    1. If you want to get from Port Angeles or Victoria to downtown you just take the Dungeness bus line. This wouldn’t change that.

      1. I felt Dungeness was rather expensive. If a relatively easy combination of foot ferry and public transit could be created that might be appealing.

  2. I’m optimistic but skeptical.

    PT more or less works without a car, but having a car makes it deeper; there are a lot of nearby attractions that aren’t walkable. I’m not sure car-free visitors will want to go back over and over again. My own instinct would be to deal with the 3-hour (plus ferry wait) drive instead.

    1. I wonder how much traffic they could get from cruise ship passengers adding a day trip to PT before or after their cruise. Marketed right, that could make a big difference.

      I really want this to work because it’s a huge help for bike touring, but I know bike tourists alone won’t be enough passengers to make viable….

  3. Incidentally, it would only take a few miles of new bike trail, strategically placed, to allow cyclists to completely avoid 101 between PT and PA. The trick is that for much of the section that doesn’t have the ODT yet, there’s the “Old Gardiner Highway” and “Old Blyn Highway” that run almost-parallel but are very quiet. Right now this only works really well going west, because they’re all on the right-hand-side in that direction, which makes the intersections with 101 easy. But I reckon the total mileage of trail that would need to be added to keep cyclists off 101 altogether is less than 5, and for much of that the 101 shoulder is so wide that a two-way cycle track would fit on existing tarmac.

  4. I can see myself using this 3-4 times a year. They could probably charge a premium the week of the Wooden Boat Festival and still be full.
    I for one cannot stand that drive. It’s endless, and it seems like it shouldn’t take nearly as long as it does. I’ll happily ride the ferry instead.

  5. I wonder how adding a few zipcars on the Port Townsend side would increase ridership on the ferry.

    If zipcar wasn’t able to do it, just some kind of car sharing system.

    1. That’s an excellent point. I had been thinking about organised bus tours starting from the ferry dock, but I imagine a lot of people would prefer to set their own schedules.

    2. I wouldn’t mind an organized bus tour from the ferry terminal. Langley, Whidbey Island, Poulsbo, and the Kitsap Penninsula should take note.

  6. Was just in PT this past Saturday. Love the place, but seeing this ferry maes me squirm. I am afraid it will fail big time.

    Also, the quote in the article “a pretty epic transit journey through Bainbridge is the only alternative between Seattle and Port Townsend.” Isn’t completely true. One can also take the Mukilteo-Clinton route, then get aboard IT and go to Keystone and catch either Kenny or Sal there and take them to PT. It’s even more EPIC!

    John Bailo, Sequim is way overbuilt, the crash there is going to be very painful…can’t say about the rest of the peninsula since I only visit PA, PT and the east side like Quilcene and Brinnon.

    1. For most of us, just getting to Mukilteo by transit is already an epic journey. So far, I’ve done it once (biked to King St. station, then rode Sounder). Door-to-door travel time was about an hour and a half. Had I ridden the bus downtown, the figure would have been worse.

      1. Mukilteo has gotten really bad. You have to transfer at Ash Way now, not Lynnwood, as my friend and I found out the hard way one recent Saturday. We couldn’t find the 113 stop at Lynnwood TC that he usually used, and a kindly 201/202 driver told is it had been truncated to Ash Way, but he was going there in a minute so hop aboard. We got to Ash Way and waited some 25 minutes for the bus. (Which was just as well, because if we’d taken the 511 all the way to Ash Way rather than Lynnwood, we would have had to wait 45 minutes.)

        One bright point was the nice Vienna cafe across the street from the P&R. It’s a small coffee chain that opened its first Washington cafe in Ash Way rather than Seattle. Interesting how it targeted exurbanites, who indeed have fewer coffee choices than city dwellers.

        The hourly Mukilteo bus zigzags slowly through single-family residential areas and office parks rather than taking the Mukilteo Speedway all the way. That may be where CT’s ridership is, but with low density and an hourly bus and zigzags, it’s not much ridership. Anyway, we got to Mukilteo late and missed my friend’s dad, who had gone back to Whidbey by then. We did have a nice afternoon at Ivar’s and touring the lighthouse, but the bus trip was only tolerable.

        On the way back, we took Swift and the 358 for variety, rather than waiting at a concrete P&R again and getting on a boring freeway.

      2. According to the website, Everett Transit route 18 provides a reasonably direct routing between the Everett Station and Multilteo. Unfortunately, it it’s not a weekday, you’re out of luck (and if it is a weekday, your may as well just take Sounder).

    2. I now want to read an EPIC (you know, like the Odyssey) about a trip from Seattle to Port Townsend. Any writers?

  7. Port Townsend is a beautiful little town. I would LOVE a ped/bike(!) only ferry there. I could see using it a 3-4 times a year for weekend getaways. It would also be possible to use the Port Townsend/Kingston ferry to hit Whidbey Island. That would make a really excellent bike experience. I do not think $45 RT is unreasonable. @chetan Zipcars in Port Townsend FTW!

  8. I live in Port Townsend and work a few days a week in Seattle. This would save me so much time and gas. I tried the transit through bainbridge but it just didn’t work out. I look forward to the day I can walk onto a ferry in PT, work during the commute, and then take a short urban hike to my job. No more sitting in traffic etc…

  9. Question: will there be an afternoon ferry that will get you into Port Townsend early enough to catch the last Jefferson Transit bus to elsewhere on the Peninsula, or will you be forced to spend the night in Port Townsend to get on a bus that goes anywhere else?

  10. Is there a simple reason why passenger ferries in our region don’t seem to be economically feasible, and why they seem to work so well elsewhere? When you look at Google Maps, the SF Bay area has an extensive network with relatively high frequencies…and they appear to be private fleets. Anecdotally, it appears to be an incredibly cheap way to get a completely “grade separated” transit line. However, I remember seeing the subsidy cost per passenger (KC proposal) and being shocked/depressed…

    1. SF Bay has something like a population density of ~1,300 per square kilometer, while the Seattle metropolitan area has ~200 per square kilometer, per some quick searches. Both have sprawling road networks that likely keep the populations spread out and away from water, but with something like six times the density in SF, and from what I recall the entire Bay being built around, versus mostly just the Eastern and Southern sides of the Sound…

      Then there’s the additional costs of actually staying afloat, pushing through water, having radar, life preservers, and so forth, factors likely absent or less of a concern back in the days of the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet. Details of the private/public switchover in 1951 probably bear more digging into, as well:


      1. The Black Ball line had essentially a monopoly and had to ask the State for rate hikes. The State thought Black Ball was asking too much in fares and thought they could do it cheaper. The rest as they say is history. Like Amtrak the service has lost money every year since the take over. BTW, the Black Ball Line still operates the Port Angles to Victoria run. They’d be a good choice to operate the Port Townsend to Seattle ferry.

    2. San Francisco and Oakland are both large cities. SF gets a far more tourists than Seattle does. It’s sunny most of the year so always a pleasant day for a ferry ride. More terminals have walkable destinations (e.g., Sausileto). Vallejo is akin to Bremerton but just has a stronger ferry tradition and stronger city. The Puget Sound penninsulas and islands are really rural areas and isolated small towns that have recently become exurbs, so there’s just not a heavy draw for passenger-only ferry traffic at all hours. Also, the penninsula and islands have actively fought ferry expansion and bridges in the past, to prevent the towns from growing significantly.

    3. Ferries are rarely economically self-sustaining; the SF Bay Area is one of the exceptions.

      In NYC the ferries barely survive, but of course NYC has train bridges and tunnels. The Staten Island Ferry receives large subsidies.

      In the Bay Area, there are several things to notice:

      First, many of the ferry routes go on routes where the road alternative is way out of the way, involving substantial backtracking — or at best, requires driving through crowded San Francisco or Oakland city streets for long periods. The ferry terminals are very well located. Now, you have that going for you in Seattle too.

      Second, they’re going to places with really large populations, even the “lower population” areas in Sonoma and Marin counties. You only sort of have that going for you. The Seattle side is dense, but much of the western side just isn’t, apart from Bremerton.

      Third, they’re fairly short. The Vallejo ferry is the longest one. You have some much longer ferry routes already. This matters because even fast ferries are *slow* by ground transportation standards — the speed doesn’t matter for a short route but starts to add up for a long route.

      You actually have quite a lot of ferries in Puget Sound.

  11. The foot ferry should be very pleasant for day or overnight trips in either direction for those with plenty of discretionary money! It would be lovely to take this ferry and stay overnight downtown when visiting SAM or Pike Place Market.

    But it is hardly cheaper than the rather grueling car ferry + bus for budget travelers without a car. Driving costs are still lower for two or more travelers: it cost most of us less than $100 to drive with senior, commuter & small car ferry discounts, and good gas mileage), so many car owners will choose to drive rather than carry water, coats, overnight bags, manage strollers & young children, etc.

    So hard to know if the wealthier travelers will keep this one afloat!

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