On February 8, the King County Council accepted the final report on Water Taxi expansion. The Council vote followed an occasionally contentious review at the TrEE (Transportation, Economy and Environment) Committee the week before. No decision was taken on moving forward with the expansion. That’s a budgetary decision to be taken up, if a request is made, as part of the budget process later this year.
The final report refines analysis presented in the interim report, and accommodates some suggestions by the jurisdictions and stakeholders that might be served. But the key findings haven’t changed greatly. Three routes are being considered:
- 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).
A few modifications are suggested. In Kenmore, the ferry may eventually serve Lake Pointe where development could create an opportunity for shared parking (initial service would be via Log Boom Park with parking at a remote lot served by shuttle bus). In Kirkland, where downtown parking for transit riders would not be available, a circulator shuttle to bring riders to the Marina is examined. Expedia has asked that the ferry from Shilshole Bay stop at Interbay en route to downtown Seattle.
The revisions to the proposal do not improve expected performance. These are low-ridership high-cost services. At launch, off-season ridership would range between 135 and 165 daily riders per route, growing to 285-370 after 10 years. Summer ridership, boosted by recreational users, would grow from about 300 daily riders on each route to just over 500 after 10 years.
Serving seasonal recreational users improves the unit (per-rider) economics, but is a peculiar priority for transit dollars. These ferries are assumed only to operate at weekday peak times, and that would not be the obvious way to serve such riders anyway. The West Seattle Water Taxi which does operate on summer weekends has very lopsided ridership. 1,400 recreational users use that water taxi daily on summer weekends. That falls to 642 on summer weekdays, and only 55 on off-season weekdays. Even with regular commute riders in the mix, total August ridership is six times greater than in January. [UPDATE: Edited to clarify the daily counts in sentences 4, 5 are recreational only, and to add additional context re seasonal ridership by month].
Even those low off-season numbers assume the water taxi can capture a large share of the transit market (58% of Kenmore-UW base ridership in 2025, or 43% of Kirkland-UW). There is optimism that the much slower travel times would be offset by other benefits like guaranteed seats on the uncrowded ferry and a more scenic trip.
Operating costs would start about $25-$34 per rider, declining to $19-22 after 10 years. Farebox recovery rates would start at 12-16% and improve to 28-31% after 10 years, but with higher fares starting at $5.25. Cost-per-rider isn’t the only metric to consider with a ferry. On Vashon, ferry service is necessary because it’s an island. But the case for such a high-cost transit mode in markets served by buses at lower cost (with better speeds and frequencies) is less obvious.
Ferries are rarely the optimal form of transit except in markets with dense waterfront development and/or an absence of over-land or bridge routes. The walk-shed is necessarily truncated, so ferries only work well when the transit network funnels riders to the port. The Kenmore parking shuttle and Kirkland circulator buses don’t much resemble the tightly integrated bus networks bringing riders to ferries in North Vancouver and Sydney Harbor. Nor do either of those ferry markets compete against such time-competitive bus alternatives.
Water taxis are funded via a property tax levy which will increase significantly in 2017 just to support current service levels. The current low levy rate of just $1.50 on a $500,000 house dates to a 2009 adjustment in tax rates that funded Rapid Ride while keeping overall taxes neutral. The levy will increase to an estimated $9.55 in 2017 to maintain existing current routes. Adding three more routes would take that to almost $22/$500,000 house. While the value proposition is not compelling, the total cost might not be large enough to draw close attention. Nevertheless, there has been some adverse media coverage, notably a skeptical piece by Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times.
Claudia Balducci’s comments at the TrEE committee are on point:
“This type of service should be compared to every other type of transit that we provide.
 I think we have to watch the way we talk about things. When we say everybody gets a seat, a seat for everybody, that would be really nice on about a few hundred buses around here every single day that I could think of, if everybody could have a seat. It’s another way of saying the service is under-utilized, frankly.
 before the adoption of the passenger ferry district, a person came to one of the subarea boards of transportation and made a presentation that showed pretty conclusively that you could provide the same level of ridership by having a taxi come to the Kirkland waterfront and drive people all the way around to the University of Washington for each and every rider that you would serve.
I think we need to take a really careful look at this before we go full speed ahead to increasing service”.