Southport Project (Seco Development)

Last week, Geekwire broke the story that the developers of Renton’s Southport office project will fund a foot ferry pilot program from its Lake Washington location to South Lake Union. Estimated to take 45 minutes, this would be competitive with driving (30-60 minutes) and considerably faster than current transit options (about 1:15). The service would begin in 2020.

The article says key details are, uh, incomplete:

The water taxi project is still in early phases, so details like timing, capacity, funding, frequency, pricing and stops have yet to be decided, [Project Planning Director Rocale] Timmons said. The company is considering 149-passenger catamarans similar to Kitsap Transit’s new fast ferry.

Seco is planning to arm the boats with amenities sure to please commuters, such as high speed internet, bike storage, standing desks and the ability to order coffee and snacks via smartphone. Seco doesn’t want to focus purely on commuters, and the service will likely have an entertainment and tourism element as well.

Timmons told STB that connection 20,000 jobs in the Renton Landing area with 50,000 jobs in South Lake Union would convert the lake from “a barrier to a predictable and eco-friendly connection to jobs, affordable housing, and shopping and entertainment opportunities – without adding to the congestion of our roads.” And indeed, SLU won’t see high-quality rail until the 2030s, while any service to the Landing is entirely hypothetical.

He added that Seco Development hired KPFF Consulting Engineers to develop an implementation plan for the ferry. Locally, KPFF has done many projects familiar to readers, including Tacoma Link’s Commerce St infill station, Edmonds and Lakewood Sounder, East Link in South Bellevue, U District Station, the Pine Street stub tunnel, the First Hill Streetcar, and Kitsap Fast Ferries. Timmons pointed out that they have also done work for most major North American ferry operators.

Timmons wouldn’t say how much Seco was willing to budget for operations, which will govern how frequent (and therefore useful) the ferry can be. He did suggest that positive reactions from local politicians (see the article) might mean local government might chip in to enhance the service.

There are many questions about this ferry. Most importantly, the frequency will govern how useful it is for a wide variety of trips. A good interface with other transit, like the C Line, Eastlake BRT, streetcar, and Renton’s ST Express buses, will mean the difference between heavy ridership and a handful of people in the right place at the right time. Meanwhile, the focus on amenities seems like the kind of thing Jarrett Walker warned us about.

Until we have those details, it’s hard to say if this will be a link of regional importance, a useful shuttle for a tech industry tenant, or merely a line on a map to lure a lucrative tenant that may not grasp the nuances of useful service. But done right, this could be the kind of innovation that binds our communities closer together in a traffic-independent way.

57 Replies to “Ferry to Renton: Transit Solution or Marketing?”

    1. Maybe of the University Bridge, but not of Montlake. It’s a good forty feet above lake level

  1. When did this area become Seattle’s Southport? In any case, the exact location is buried in the Location (PDF) tab, page 2. It’s in a gap between Boeing, Coulon Park, and The Landing. Kudos for having a whole page on public transportation, although it’s more about general Renton transit and doesn’t show how close the nearest bus stop is to the buildings. Google Maps shows four buildings called “SECO Development Inc” on the water next to the park, and two grassy areas that must be where the three buildings will go. The Hyatt hotel appears to be open, and there’s an apartment building (Bristol at Southport). The closest bus stop is at the F’s terminus, which could be a 5-minute walk but it looks like there’s Boeing-restricted parking in between and I don’t know if you can walk through without a Boeing badge. Going around three sides of the parking field adds a pedestrian-hostile five minutes to the walk. So it would have to have a shuttle to compensate for that. Or maybe the F could be extended to the waterfront with private funding. The ferry passengers will need transit at the terminal anyway, right? And if the F can stop 72 times a day at Sounder even when there’s no train, I guess it can stop at a ferry terminal too, especially if it’s at the end of the route rather than a detour in the middle. And hey, the C does it. I partly wish Southport has more apartments because “The Landing is a community to over 785 apartment homes”, which couldn’t fit a fraction of the 10,000 some workers, as if the units weren’t already filled. On the other hand, what non-driver would want to live in a cul-de-sac hemmed in behind a parking lot they had to walk around?

    It advertises a nearby “Future Transit Center” as if it’s just on the other side of the buildings. That can’t be the transit center at the South Renton P&R, and the picture (Brochure tab, page 3) shows The Landing beyond it. It doesn’t even appear to be the 405 BRT N 8th Street station unless the bus gets off the freeway, and even then the access road is around 12th Street not 8th. Unless there’s going to be a transit center right around the F’s terminus that I haven’t heard about.

    1. I think it says “proposed transit center”, which might mean no more than the Point Wells developers proposing a Sounder station that ST has no interest in building.

      One nice thing about this project is that if I ever need a good local example of “infill sprawl” now I have one.

      1. (I should clarify that I don’t mean “infill sprawl” to be as pejorative as it sounds. It’s one of the ways that cities grow in the auto age. If land is tighter than money, as it often is on the west coast, then they’ll fill in pretty densely, within the limits of auto-based form. That’s this. Somewhat human-dense, very car-dense. On a weird cul-de-sac, but, because our suburban transit story is pretty strong here, somewhat near several regional transit routes on Park/Logan. Between this stuff and The Landing, it could all be pretty walkable if it was built in a location with a walkable street network… but of course that’s not what’s happening.)

      2. There’s also the issue of what better thing could go there. And it is close to downtown Renton, a frequent bus route, and apartments. And the railroad was there before most of Renton was. The only other use for it I can think of is to extend the park. but that wouldn’t go anywhere if the city thinks the park is big enough and doesn’t want to subsidize it more and lose the tax base of private development.

      3. The objection wouldn’t be on the grounds of, “What should go there,” (the objector would say, “Something unimportant,”) but on the grounds of, “Where should large office developments go?” The answer would be in fairly concentrated areas where we’ve built thorough pedestrian networks and that have been intentionally planned as hubs of both regional and local transit… and not down cul-de-sac driveways without sidewalks (unless they’ve been rebuilt since last time they were rebuilt).

        I guess a couple thousand cars per day will have fun squeezing down those driveways, too…

    2. It isn’t a Boeing parking lot. It is a Puget Sound Energy transformer facility and a bunch of storage. The rail line is also a big barrier. It is still only a 5 minute walk to walk around to the bus stop. But the F bus is soooooo slow that it isn’t getting used. I work at the factory and I beat the bus on my bike most mornings at 5am from the Tukwila Sounder station. I took the F after work a couple of months ago to go to the airport. It took me 75 minutes including the transfer to Link at TIBS. I should have rode my bike.

      A rapid ride from the Landing to the Rainier Beach station would be much faster. And a separate bus on bus only lanes from the Sounder station to the Landing at the early hours that would allow Boeing users to start using it. If the trains would come earlier…

      I don’t see most Boeing employees using a boat to get to work. Most mechanics live south of Seattle.

      1. BNSF is not going to hang catenary over their trackage. They had it and tore it out over Stevens Pass.

      2. And also terminate at Olympia Lacey, not Dupont. But let’s come about on topic with a fair wind in our sails! Being alert that no swab gets their head whacked all the way to Singapore when the main boom sweeps the deck!

        Does bus-side trolleybus instruction keep forgetting to teach ye that? Thought so. Explains a lot more dewirements than a mere 40 mph. through special work!

        Any lubber can string a wire over a railroad. But as long as the wind is steady in the wings of our fine floating turbines, we’ll be out of the channel and headed for Kirkland with a fine load of chocolate from Fremont!

        Fine news that some seafarer has developed a high speed infernal net, because all these energy bars cast astern by bespectacled Knowledge laden gentry have got these fishies up to fifty knots! But when you swing into Medina Harbor with the Jolly Roger at full staff, your hail for coffee and snacks will draw right smart compliance when emphasized by a full broadside of cannonball!

        And Mr. Starbuck, I mean Schultz! Tell that steersman out of Atlantic if he dewires one more time under the Montlake Bridge he’ll go overboard and re-wire it himself. No matter how many sharks Global Warming has brought into Lake Washington. Meantime, all hands on deck for our National Anthem!

        Aaaargh! I mean Mark

      3. Yes, of course “BNSF” did not have wire over Stevens. It didn’t exist, as you said. But Stevens is its trans-continental main line for Puget Sound, so the fact that ownership was GN means the same thing, becsuse GN was subsumed into Burlington Northern which bought Santa Fe

        It’s the same railroad, as attested by their PBS ads ” moving America for 160 years”.

  2. Tukwila and Renton have certainly been promoting their locations as transportation crossroads. To me everything in Tukwila seems like an awful walk from the 150 or whatever future transit it gets, but Tukwila’s marketing posits a bright future with access from I-5 and 405, Tukwila Sounder station (“just a 10-minute walk from the Baker Street neighborhood” after they build that ped bridge, Boeing Access Road station with a future A terminus and urban village and proximity to the Museum of Flight and Aviation High School. Yes, everything is “close” in a car sense but not in a walking sense. Renton has not been as strong in marketing or in transit advocacy, but when it does it’s along the same lines. (“Close to 405, 167, and 900. Future BRT stations and transit centers. That ‘Tukwila’ Link station is half ours.”) And it is equidistant from the Seattle and Bellevue job centers, about as far as they are from each other (probably 2-3 miles further). Could this be our “San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose” in the making? Not really. But the closest other city with enough space for an office center is Lynnwood, and while that is also equidistant it’s also further (while maybe not, they’re both around 15 miles). So a quadrad? Federal Way and Tacoma would be pissed.

  3. How about a rail line from Renton to downtown Seattle instead? I know this is pure fantasy and it would require some intense negotiations with BN$F, but if we want to build a fast, high capacity connection between Renton and downtown Seattle, this would be the way to go. There’s an existing switch off the BNSF line behind Ft. Dent that serves a sand and gravel operation and then ends alongside the sewage treatment plant near Grady Way and Oakesdale. The rail line would need to be upgraded and the right-of-way along SW 10th Street would need to be reclaimed, but the trip time from King Street Station to Grady Way/Rainier Avenue would only be about 1-2 minutes longer than the trip between Tukwila and King Street Station (15-16 minutes).

    This isn’t an inexpensive proposal but it would provide high capacity transit service to Renton and I think it’s just as feasible as a ferry.

    1. Or even a spur off of the Link line onto the power line ROW that heads straight into downtown Renton. That would be far more useful and cost-effective in the long run.

      1. Chris, I think an idea close to yours would’ve been designed onto LINK in the 1920’s. As was often done on interurban systems, the cars could handle both express and street running. Both modes able to use same tracks.

        A few blocks south of Othello Station, Renton Avenue angles southeastward as more of less a side street. At an angle that’d give a car no trouble. Street running from MLK to Henderson, to Seward Park Drive to Prentiss, and then along the lake past the airfield into Renton,

        As the 107 used to do. By the tape measure the diagonal street would be tight for street running. Definitely room along the Lake. But again, not generous. Tempting to check it out. Advantage over the power line route is the number of passengers it could serve.

        Still think. though, that best way is to wire the Route 7 all the way through. Maybe we could get some reserved center lanes.

        Doubtless different now 25 year later, but don’t remember that much car traffic. So that the 7 could serve Rainier Beach Station, maybe every fifth coach could turn west to a loop at the Station. Still curious to know what’s suppressing development there.

        But like the idea of the Route 7. Very large passenger loads, very straight, pretty ride along the lake. Definitely worth some attention.


      1. Guy, psf, the line you’re talking about is the old NP which ran alongside Grady Way and turned north and ran through the middle of downtown Renton and Boeing. When I-405 was built the BNSF eastside line was rerouted on Milwaukee ROW, which was then bought when it retreated from the northwest. A spur to the north was extended to connect with the NP up by the end of the F and Boeing was served from the north rather than the south.

        What you’re calling “the Boeing Switch” is actually the connection of the Milwaukee Road line over Snoqualmie to the UP, it’s trackage rights entry to Seattle and Tacoma. That complex junction at that time was a two-diamond very diagonal crossing rather than a merge, crossover, divergence as it is today. The Milwaukee joined the UP just north of the diamonds.

      2. Richard, you mangled some of the railroad history here.

        The Milwaukee used the Pacific Coast RR between Maple Valley and Black River (Tukwila) as part of its mainline over Snoqualmie, then used it’s own line from there to Tacoma. It later sold half ownership of the line between Black River and Tacoma to UP. UP built their own line from Black River to Seattle and the Milwaukee used the parallel Pacific Coast line to Seattle, though Milwaukee passenger trains got on the UP to access Union Station at a junction near Georgetown.

        The Great Northern bought the Pacific Coast RR in the early 1950s and then merged with the Northern Pacific in 1970 to form Burlington Northern. I think the NP may have started using the GN/Pacific Coast line through downtown Renton to access its own line near what is now I-405 before the merger, but I don’t think that had anything to do with I-405 construction. Regardless, BN only needed one line through Renton after 1970.

      3. Paul, thank you. I knew about the interurban bit from Maple Valley to Black River Jct, but figured it was unimportant for telling the story of the old NP access along Grady Way.

        I did not know that Milwaukee built Tacoma-Black River rather than UP.

        In any case the right of way along Grady Way is long since covered by big box parking lots, and the north-south alignment through downtown Renton is not going to be rererailed any time soon

      4. Thanks for the historical perspective on the rail line. Currently there aren’t any structures built on the old right-of-way. WalMart and the ESA were both built to the north of the line. The rails have been removed but there aren’t any existing structures on the ROW. In Renton, the biggest obstacles would be how to cross Oakesdale and Rainier Avenue, unless the station were to be built on the west side of Rainier. But the biggest challenge would be convincing BNSF that another passenger train operation would be a profitable use of their infrastructure.

      5. Renton – Seattle service would put train traffic in an area with a fair amount of capacity. Among other things, the big yards at Auburn and Tacoma are south of there. Much of the main line is more than double track.

    2. A streetcar from the Rainier Beach station to Southport might be an future option if a lot more housing and offices eventually get built and the 737 rates continue to go up. Rainier Ave has very few stoplights on this stretch, it should be easy to give it dedicated lanes by just removing parking on Rainier and it could move pretty quick.
      The whole thing seems like a longshot but I think a ferry is a bigger longshot than a streetcar or BRT to Rainier Beach.

  4. A big drawback is going to be frequency. This boat couldn’t run as often as a charter bus. Wouldn’t a boat arrive only every 60 to 120 minutes? Wouldn’t the costs of a bigger crew as well as extra fuel to push through water mean that 20-minute charter bus service would be cheaper and more productive?

    1. This is about water views and relaxation on a boat. In any case, a charter bus wouldn’t go specifically to SLU. It would go to all the nearby major transit stops, central Seattle, central Bellevue, etc — everywhere that there’s not a conveniently-close HCT alternative yet. Like the Microsoft shuttles, but funded by the development as a whole rather than by and for a single business. But buses don’t have marketing pazzaz.

    2. Don’t see any reason not to do this boat service. Very likely it used to have some. But this has to be discussed and presented by someone who knows the technical facts. My own guess is that older service was much slower.

      But dead giveaway to me was the coffee and snacks. A few years back there was more than one announcement of coffee-supplied private bus services too. I think more like those white painted black windowed spooks that make tech firms look even less terrestrial than they really are.

      On my drive out here from Michigan in, like, 1973, I rode a luxury express bus between Calgary and Edmonton. A couple years before that, Greyhound had an overnight sleeper coach between Toronto and Sudbury. From what I rode in Thailand and read about in Turkey.

      I think we owe it to the civilized world to at least turn Greyhound over to a Turkish company. Coffee, gifts, stewardesses- and also drivers who were not fired by the California Correctional System for abusing passengers.

      Maybe if I don’t get my Route 7 trollebus to Ellensburg, maybe the Crimean Russians would at least loan us the stewardess in the video. But really, I don’t see any evidence that on-board coffee is on any American bus passenger’s A-list. Boats? Maybe, but would check out the boats and their navigation before I did the galley.

      Have to say, though, that Greyhound and my favorite Chicago and North Shore Electroliner should get a decoration fora brave though hopeless rear guard action against public interstates and unregulated airlines.

      Paul Weyrich, publisher of my own favorite transit periodical, the New Electric Railway Journal, always held that our car-crushed country was result of the biggest and most corrupt Socialist giveaway in history.

      He was convinced that left to real- not subsidized- private enterprise, mode choice between cars and streetcars wold have settled out at 50-50. Man was a Royalist who thought the Magna Carta was Communist propaganda. But will give him credit for this country’s only valid claim to, and definition o,f the term “Conservative.”


      1. On the overnight bus from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh (one of them transfers to a shuttle in Hamilton, Scotland), there’s a woman staff on board whose only function that I could perceive was to come down the aisle once in the middle of the night and ask if we wanted tea, and if so brought us a paper cup of tea for 50p.

        I didn’t ask if they supported Magna Carta. (And Dan Jones, who wrote a book about it [1], pronounces it without a “the”. So I guess he’s right.)

        [1] Magna Carta: the Birth of Liberty. Fascinating, because what it intended to do in the 1200s and what was exaggeratedly attributed to it in the 1600s and 1700s were almost completely different. But our own Constitution, Britain’s reforms, and Canada’s autonomy all depend on that exaggeration. There was a mural on East Olive Way for years that said something like, “I will always love that false image I had of you.” Interesting parallel.

  5. Seco doesn’t want to focus purely on commuters, and the service will likely have an entertainment and tourism element as well.

    If it’s all private money then I expect the real market is to compete with Argosy Cruises. There’s definitely a market for this; think dinner train on the water. Besides the regular tourist cruises plenty of corporate types would book outings. Christmas and Seafair there’s unlimited demand. Pretty much all summer they can keep it booked full. The commuter runs give them a nice steady income but unless they have more than one boat it would only be a couple runs AM and PM. One thing they have going for them is bidirectional demand.

    1. I don’t mind if it’s all private money, and it makes sense to replace the dinner train with something. I’m just concerned that this will be a privately-funded pilot project and then it will look to the cities and county to fund it after that. Like how Paul Allen paid part of the capital cost for the SLU streetcar but Metro is paying for is ongoing operations.

      1. Wouldn’t worry about this one, Mike. Only public agency in the US who’d give a dime to this project is headquartered at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Possible danger is if cargo was not passengers but coal or oil.

        Or a floating private prison like the Brits used to have in Charles Dickens’ time. They called them “Hulks.” First name of Hogan Ltd. founder.

        But South Lake Union streetcar is something that belongs in our transit system already, and also be part of a streetcar system that no other city would turn down. Even in Texas. Besides, history shows that ripping up existing streetcar track is a jinx. Look what happened last time we did it.


      2. Europe would turn it down and build proper transit instead. Transit is not a token to them but a primary means of transportation.

  6. boat speeds are limited to seven knots west of Webster Point (Laurelhurst). No wake. It will not be competitive. There ain’t no such thing as a free boat trip.

    1. That was my thought. If you have ever been on boat from Lake Washington to Lake Union you know it is agonizingly slow. A transfer to the UW link station to a Lake Washington boat dock would be the only way it could have a chance to be competitive with a bus.

    2. Yeah, the geography is all wrong as well. It is much *farther* than driving. Who does that? Seriously, look at just about any ferry run, and immediately you realize that the ferry ride is shorter. Yet despite that, the ferry ride often takes longer (boats are slow and take a while to load and unload). In this case, everything is backwards, because you have to go up and around (through the Montlake cut) and then back south to get to South Lake Union.

      Now, if they ran it from the south end of Mercer Island to Renton, things would be different. But there is nothing at the south end of Mercer Island, and I think Mercer Island residents like it that way. Likewise, this might stand a chance if it connected to Madison Park, and Madison Park looked like Belltown. But it doesn’t.

      I think this is just a marketing gimmick designed to promote an area that most people aren’t excited about.

      1. Marketing maybe but to me the hype is that this is a “commuter” ferry when in reality it’s more of an excuse to get King Co./Renton/Seattle to approve moorage (Shoreline Mgmt Act) for their Party Boat buisness.

  7. The marketing pitch for this place, with its prominent mentions of general-aviation airports and rooftop helipads, sounds like it was designed to get Microsoft execs living in mansions in Issaquah or south of Lake Washington dusting off their folders of startup ideas.

    I’m going to invent a rule of thumb about passenger boats for urban transportation: if the over-water distance is half of the over-land distance, then there could be a borderline practical transportation case for boats. King County’s existing West Seattle-downtown route is a little shorter than half the over-land distance… and if it landed, say, in the cute-beach-town part of Alki it would be well over half the over-land distance. It probably gets harder as distance grows — land-based transit can go quite fast in long gaps between stops, not so much on the water.

    1. That was my thought as well. Besides being relatively slow moving, water transportation is also expensive. Even if every person on board got a free Uber ride to Ranier Beach Station, it would still likely be cheaper than operating the boat.

      On top of that, you have a water route that’s roundabout, going north, then south, through a section of 3-4 miles speed-limited to 7 knots. I just don’t see this working. If the goal is to have a dinner cruise, it can just start and end at the same place, charge exorbitant prices to pay for the cost of operating the boat, and operate with a much slower boat that would be quieter than burn less fuel.

    2. Yeah, we are all on the same page (I said the same thing up above). Ferries work because the distance is shorter. That makes up for all the other weaknesses (relatively slow speeds, long boarding and unloading time, high cost unless you have a lot of people).

      Your “half the distance” rule is a good one, but there are exceptions. One that comes to mind is the ferry connecting Vallejo with San Fransisco (although I would imagine there are more). There are some similarities. The Vallejo Ferry has to move slowly through the Napa River estuary, just as this would move slowly through the Montlake Cut and South Lake Union. Alternatives to the ferry aren’t great — it takes a while to get there via a car (especially when there is traffic) or by transit (BART doesn’t go out that far).

      But that is where the similarity ends. The Vallejo ferry operates like a commuter train. It takes a long time, but is a reasonable alternative, as long as you can get to the ferry dock (at each end) quickly. For most, that means driving and parking in Vallejo, and then walking to work on the other end. The ferry is very close to the financial district in San Fransisco, which means that it serves the employment center of central California. At the other end, it works well as a commuter trip. It isn’t that difficult to get there, so it draws a lot of people from North Bay. Most of those folks drive, I would imagine. The ferry takes a long time (about an hour) so commuters don’t want to spend an extra minute getting to the ferry.

      This is a different beast. It would serve a much less popular area (this new development is not going to look like downtown San Fransisco). South Lake Union has a fair number of people living there now, but getting to South Lake Union is a challenge via transit. Since this ferry would probably take roughly an hour, you are looking at very lengthy trip from places like Queen Anne and Capitol Hill, let alone Ballard or the Central Area. If you work close to MOHAI, it isn’t that great from a commuting standpoint, but for many, they get there in, say, 20 minutes. Now you are talking an hour and 20 minutes. Sorry, that just isn’t going to fly. Folks won’t walk to work there, unless they live in the south end.

  8. If a ferry goes to SLU, then theoretically a ferry could also go to Kirkland. And Bellevue’s Meydenbauer Park could have a ferry dock, and they’re already planning a greenway from there to downtown Bellevue and the transit center. It might be a good place for a Spin bike.

  9. #1. I would love to see a PRIVATE SECTOR fast ferry from Everett to Seattle with stops in Mukilteo & Edmonds. Replace that money train called Sounder North. If that means letting the private sector use WSF and other public docks, good.

    #2. I would love to see the PRIVATE SECTOR do the fast ferry deal. It’s a premium service and basic transit is underfunded.

    1. On the contrary, a ferry running the Sounder route would probably result in an even-larger per-passenger subsidy than operating the Sounder train – yes, water transportation is, really, that expensive. And, it would be much, much slower.

  10. The documents say they are currently building nearly 700,000 square feet of parking space, so it’s pretty easy to see they really don’t expect transit to be particularly easy to access at this location.

  11. Folks forget that most of our urban centers and roadways were originally built around the location’s proximity to the waterways for both commerce and travel. It wasn’t until the 1920’s and beyond did we start to get roadways that bisected the region. Before that point, for 50+ years, the Mosquito Fleet (thousands of private ferry boats) and river paddle wheel ships are what constituted the lifeblood and economy of the region. We built our cities around that fact, and gave them good access to waterways.

    As we start to see private land-based systems and infrastructure continue to be overwhelmed, I’m sure we’ll start seeing a return to travel by water. It would be excellent if urban planners took this into account and better merged future land based mass transit with waterfront locations, outside of a couple state operated ferry runs and docks

  12. A brief visit to Sydney, Australia leaves one wondering why a similarly watery city such as Seattle doesn’t seem to be able to get its act together on water-borne transit.

    Before coming up with elaborate hypothetical reasons for why foot ferries can’t work, first one must explain away Sydney. Given the scope of Sydney’s age-old and dense foot ferry network, a lot of explaining will be required, and possibly some invention.

Comments are closed.