King County is considering adding more water taxi routes. Last week, the County Council’s TrEE Committee (Transportation, Economy and Environment) reviewed an interim report looking into expansion of the service.
The interim report screened 36 potential routes serving 17 terminal locations on Lake Washington and the King County shore of Puget Sound. Just three of these met criteria for travel time and operational cost recovery. The routes were:
* Kenmore (Log Boom Park) to University of Washington (Waterfront Activity Center)
* Kirkland (Marina Park) to University of Washington (Waterfront Activity Center)
* Ballard (Shilshole Marina) to Downtown Seattle (Pier 50).
The screening criteria are forgiving. Water taxis were considered time-competitive where the round trip differential compared to available transit was less than forty minutes. Seven routes meeting that threshold were evaluated for ridership and operating costs. Those projected to achieve less than 10% farebox recovery at startup, or 25% recovery at maturity (ten years after startup) were then eliminated, leaving three routes for further consideration.
Will riders favor water taxis over other transit modes with better travel times? The round-trip time penalties for water taxi are 21 minutes for Kirkland-UW, 26 minutes for Kenmore-UW, and 29 minutes for Ballard-Downtown Seattle. The report argues that riders might prefer “the enhanced experience of riding a water taxi, a guaranteed seat, on-board restrooms, and great scenic views”. A water taxi might also have less variable travel times. In contrast, the current West Seattle-Downtown service has travel times similar to surface transit. Vashon is only accessible by ferry, and the water taxi (22 minutes) is nearly three times faster than Metro Route 118 via the Washington State Ferries (63 minutes).
In 2014, the West Seattle-Downtown route carried 283 thousand riders, and 184 thousand used the Vashon to Downtown service. Ambitions for the new routes are lower. Each has projected ridership of 57-59 thousand in the first year of operation, growing to 107-120 thousand on each route at maturity (after ten years).
Access is a challenge at all of the sites. At Kenmore, the nearest parking would be accessible only via a 4-minute shuttle ride from the already well-used Kenmore Park-and-Ride. At Kirkland, the dock is close to the downtown transit center. But the Council directed staff to look at a circulator bus to attract more riders. Despite obvious challenges with out-of-direction travel, this bus might serve Google and other ridership centers south of downtown. Kirkland has long been concerned with the potential for ferry traffic to tie up parking in downtown. At Ballard, no transit serves the Shilshole Marina. The report assumes parking would be available at the Marina, though it is uncertain whether the Port would make this available. It may violate a City of Seattle prohibition on new park-and-rides. Without parking, that route would probably not be feasible.
Apart from the vessels (assumed for planning purposes to be 150 seats ferries rated for 35-knot cruising speed), the largest capital costs are at docks. Some would be minor, but UW requires more work. The dock would be at the south end of campus near Husky stadium, and about a six-minute walk from the UW light rail station. But UW is concerned about impacts to recreational water users and the UW rowing program. The docks would need to be rebuilt to accommodate existing small boat users in addition to water taxis. UW also asked that pedestrian access to the Link station and UW Medical Center be developed as part of the ferry service so that riders could walk safely through the area.
The intention is to provide commuter-oriented service initially, with three round trips in the AM peak and another three in the PM peak. This is the same service level as the Vashon Water Taxi. On the other hand, the West Seattle Water Taxi provides all day, evening, and weekend service between April and October, and commute service only during the winter months. The more recreationally-oriented operating hours in the summer drive higher ridership, and the County Marine Division reported that a majority of trips are non-commute. UW expressed interest in weekend and event ferry access.
The idea of a ferry on Lake Washington is not new, of course. Ferries from Madison Park served several Eastside communities before the Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge (later I-90) opened in 1940. The Kirkland ferry continued service as late as 1950 when bridge tolls were removed. In 2009, King County planned a demonstration project with service to begin on three to four routes later that year, but work was suspended due to the Great Recession.
A final report is due November 25.