Spirit of Kingston at Colman Dock
Spirit of Kingston at Colman Dock. Photo by Oran.

A while ago, I wrote about the Port of Port Townsend’s attempt to use a federal grant to start a financially self-sustaining foot ferry service between Port Townsend and Seattle. Sadly, the effort has come to naught, as the PT Leader reports:

During the commission’s Nov. 13 meeting, Executive Director Larry Crockett recommended that the $1.3 million Federal Transit Authority grant, awarded in 2010, be returned in its entirety. The money could have only been spent on a passenger-only ferry (POF), a project which Crockett has said is not supported by rider interest in Jefferson County.

“I’ve come to the conclusion we’re so small as a community,” Crockett said, adding the population figures for the City of Port Townsend barely qualifies it as a city compared to some metropolitan areas.

“This is not the right time for a passenger ferry,” he said. “I think this was a concept that needed to be explored, I think the port manned up and did that to best of our ability.”

Essentially, the federal grant would not have provided enough money to build a small but comfortable passenger ferry suitable for this crossing, and no such boats were readily available for purchase or lease. The only remaining option, transferring the currently-unused Spirit of Kingston commuter ferry from the Port of Kingston, was deemed not viable, as that boat would be far too large and costly to operate without very significant ongoing subsidy. The Port was also unable to identify local funds required to match the federal grant.

This ferry link could have made Port Townsend much more accessible to Seattlites, especially those without cars, and it’s disappointing to see it fall through. Still, it seems like the Port made the right call here: I’d rather public agencies take calculated risks with a solid chance of success, rather than roll the dice on high-risk projects which seem quite likely to end in spectacular failure. I hope the idea doesn’t die completely, as I suspect that in some form, this ferry link (possibly seasonal) could be viable with minimal subsidy, and would be a real asset to the communities it connected.

There is a silver lining, as mentioned by the Leader and discussed in more depth by KPLU: King County Ferry District may be able to acquire the Spirit of Kingston for free, to be used as a spare on the West Seattle and Vashon water taxi routes, making them much less subject to cancellation when Rachel Marie or Melissa Ann are out of service.

35 Replies to “Foot Ferry Update”

  1. This ferry link could have made Port Townsend much more accessible to Seattlites, especially those without cars, and it’s disappointing to see it fall through.

    Agreed. Seasonally, at least, carless Seattlites looking for a no-hassle getaway add up to a larger demand pool than Port Townsendites running occasional city errands on winter weekdays.

    Perhaps if a vessel had been more readily available, the numbers could still have crunched.

    Hopefully, as you say, it can be revived in some workable future form.

    1. More accessibility on a daily basis encourages sprawl. With smart cars available, and frankly vanilla rental cars, it’s easy for anyone that can drive to access anywhere on an occasional basis.

      I think we concentrate transit, be it land or water, near to concentrations of people and commerce, and don’t try so hard at connecting rural areas.

    2. Remember, the Port Townsend ferry district doesn’t represent carless people in Seattle visiting Port Townsend – it represents people who live in Port Townsend and vote for the people that govern it.

      1. Fair point, but much of the benefit to providing that increased access for Seattlites is mutual, even if nobody from the Peninsula sets foot on it.

      2. The distinction matter for scheduling. Officials that are accountable to Port Townsend, if they were to go ahead with the ferry, would consider it important that the schedules allow someone who lives in Port Townsend to spend a day in Seattle and return that evening, without having to stay overnight in a hotel. But those same officials would be a lot less interested in someone who lives in Seattle being able to take a day trip to Port Townsend. If anything, a schedule that forces Seattlites to overnight would be good for the Port Townsend hotel business!

      3. But then I wouldn’t go to PT if I couldn’t do a day trip, so they lose all the day trippers. It’d be in their interest to make PT accessible to the widest group of visitors. Not everyone is willing to or have the time to spend a night.

      4. That depends on how important it is to people in Port Townsend for people in Seattle to be able to visit them easily. If their economy is big on tourism, I would expect them to care a lot. On the other hand, Mukilteo couldn’t care less whether someone in Seattle can visit there on a day trip and the Sounder schedules are set accordingly.

      5. But you can easily drive to Mukilteo from Seattle in half an hour or take the bus so you don’t need Sounder to do that. The same can’t be said for Port Townsend.

      6. People go to Mukilteo for the ferry. They would take transit to Mukilteo and walk onto the ferry, except that once you get to Whidbey Island you can hardly get around without a car, so those visiting Whidbey end up driving the entire way.

  2. “I’d rather public agencies take calculated risks with a solid chance of success, rather than roll the dice on high-risk projects which seem quite likely to end in spectacular failure.”

    What is your definition of “spectacular failure” for a public agency? Or, even just ordinary “failure”, for that matter?

  3. I’ve wondered if a circular route of some sort could achieve popularity in the Puget Sound. Bremerton, Port Orchard, Manchester, Vashon, Winslow, Alki, or something. Rather than making every trip to or from Seattle I often want to go from place to place in the ‘burbs.

    1. Circular routes don’t work that well unless you have them going in both direction, which takes up a ton of service hours. I could see multi-stop passenger ferries though. Would the Kingston Ferry survive if it were coupled with Port Townsend?

  4. Snap. I was pretty much the primary audience for this ferry, living as a car-free pedestrian in Seattle with extended family in the Port Townsend area. Sad face :(

    1. Same here.

      PT business leaders and the Mayor seem be to looking to improve intermodal passenger connections as a way forward. Boat travel would have gone mostly away with the winter weather and PT is around a couple of islands that make the trip much longer. So boat selection was the most important factor to long term feasibility.

  5. I visited Vancouver last month and in addition to getting to try the Canada Line, I got to use the SeaBus. I was very impressed with the operation. The design of the SeaBus is very different from our current foot passenger boats and seems to be much better suited to creating a comfortable ride than our boats. Much of the operation was automated and there was only one visible cabin attendant (I’m sure there were other “mates” on board just not visible). The SeaBus apparently runs every 15 minutes during the day and uses 2 boats. Seems very efficient.

    1. The Seabus is more like the Staten Island ferry, and is designed for bi-directional short hops with very high passenger volumes.

      It’s a very different creature than anything in our area.

      1. Considering the population of West Seattle is I think somewhat comparable to North Vancouver and considering the number of buses we send from West Seattle to downtown, this seems like an intriguing solution. The distance from Coleman Dock to the current dock in West Seattle is comparable. The big difference is that the terminals on each end here lack the infrastructure and integration with other lines that Translink has.

        The SeaBus removes dozens of buses an hour from traffic over the LionsGate bridge which is horrifically crowded. You walk up the enclosed and climate controlled ramp from the SeaBus terminal right into a covered transit center and mall. Not much else around the Quay as NorthVan’s city center is up the steep hill from the waterfront.

      2. Not remotely similar.

        There are 50,000 people in the City of North Vancouver — a contiguous, gridded, consistently dense place entirely within a 1.25-mile radius of the ferry terminal to which its grid connects.

        An additional 85,000 live in the surrounding “District of North Vancouver”, not to mention the 40,000 in the adjacent West Vancouver.

        West Seattle has a total population of only 55,000. And that includes the Delridge corridor and areas well to the south of Alaska, for whom the Water Taxi will clearly never be useful.

        The 1.25-mile radius in which the entirety of the City of North Vancouver is contained falls far short of the Junction, and in fact contains little but the determinedly low-density Admiral District. Never mind that there is no reasonable pedestrian connection of any sort between the populated plateau and the dock.

        Unless you advocate for a complete teardown and rebuild of the northern quarter of West Seattle, there is no SeaBus comparison to be made.

    2. The SeaBus operates in much more sheltered waters that those of Puget Sound and Admiralty Inlet, and connects two pretty busy transit centers, which Pier 50, Duwamish Head and the north end Vashon Island definitely are not.

    3. I love how integrated SeaBus is with the rest of TransLink. I wish there were seamless transfers between our ferries and buses and light rail.

      1. I’m sorry Alex, but the only reason SeaBus is seamless on the Vancouver side is that SeaBus runs every 15 minutes until 7:30. I am sure there would be similar connection complaints in the evening when SeaBus runs every 30 minutes.

    4. The SeaBus was built for Expo I believe, so it was designed more as a tourist high-capacity transit like the Monorail, rather than like a typical ferry. Getting shoppers to the Lonsdale Quay was another goal. When TransLink had its strike a decade or so ago and the SeaBus didn’t run, the Lonsdale Quay merchants lost a lot of business because it’s in the middle of nowhere. Something to think about before building tourist destinations in hard-to-access locations.

  6. Has the Bremerton POF stopped running for the season? I know it was supposed to end sometime in the Fall. I think it has the potential to be very popular, but does anyone know how it’s actually been doing?

  7. I think we need a critical mass of people who are both car-free and wealthy enough to travel around for passenger-only ferries to make sense. As long as the entire cost of operating the ferry has to be justified by the incremental value of not having to drive, it is never going to seem justified.

    Maybe what it will finally take to make the economics of a Port Townsend ferry pencil out will be the advent of driverless taxis on both sides available to drive people around on land for as little as $0.50-$1.00 per mile. Now, people traveling from out of town visiting the Olympics would find a passenger only ferry, combined with taxis on each end, cheaper than a rental car + ferry fee + gas. As long as you would still have to rent the car in Port Townsend, you may as well just rent the car from SeaTac and drive all the way (Edmonds->Kingston ferry notwithstanding) – same price, but more convenient.

    1. I agree that autonomous vehicles will usher in a new era of transportation possibilities as well as the possibility of reducing the carbon footprint of our existing infrastructure while continuing to encourage density.

      But it also will require a re-alignment of what work is.

    2. It was costing me $48/rt this summer to drive/ferry to PT. The currant peak season ferry rate is $16.40 each way, for a standard car and driver.

    3. We could also decide to stop building massive and expensive (to build and operate) auto ferries that run less than half full for all but 3 -5 runs per day. Not every ferry needs to have capacity for autos except perhaps at the rush hours and weekends. Let’s build some 500 person, fast passenger only ferries and give customers a bit of a discount for using them as opposed to the MV Tacoma-sized behemoths. And of course car and driver fares must be increased, yesterday.

      1. There’s no demand for passenger only ferries. They’ve been tried several times and always failed because there is no walkshed or reasonable transit on the west side of the Sound. At some point there was the thought the ferries were a temporary measure until bridges could be built. I think everyone recognizes that that’s not going to happen. The ferries actually have a pretty good load average all day because the alternative is to drive around on the Narrows Bridge which is now tolled. Which is exactly why the fares can and should be raised.

      2. “They’ve been tried several times and always failed because there is no walkshed or reasonable transit on the west side of the Sound.”

        So, thinking of places on the other side of water with a walkshed, the Seattle-Victoria BC ferries ? :-) Yep, I guess they are passenger-only already.

      3. Maybe dynamic ridesharing is the solution here. You walk onto the ferry, then pull out your smartphone app, looking for a driver that’s headed your way, then call him up and ask for a ride. There aren’t that many cities and corridors west of the sound, so the odds are pretty good that, of all the cars on the ferry, someone’s going to be headed your way.

        Currently, the problems with this approach are:
        1) If no one is willing to give you a ride, the fallback options are going to be very expensive in either time or money.
        2) Assuming you do find a ride, there’s no good way to get back to the ferry for the return trip.

        Long-term, driverless taxis should be very effective in solving both these problems. In the meantime, it’s just what we’ve got.

  8. Car ferries are often full more than 3-5 runs a day. In 2010, Mukilteo was completely full 35% of its runs in August (peak month), 25% in May. Forecast is for 58% and 45% respectively in 2040, and that’s with somewhat larger boats. I assume Bainbridge run is even more often at capacity.
    Regarding an early comment about PT’s vessel – I think the vessel it had was fully funded by the feds. Maybe 80/20 cost share. Not sure why PT acquired the vessel before determining viability of the route, though.

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