Kitsap Transit fast ferry (image: Zach Heistand)

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) has a survey of potential passenger ferry routes on Lake Washington and Puget Sound. It’s part of a study commissioned by the Legislature earlier this year and due to be complete by January.

List of routes in the PSRC survey

The rather generously scoped study is to examine ferry opportunities across the twelve-county Puget Sound region. Apart from the usual ridership and economic metrics, it will emphasize preserving useful waterfront properties in public ownership and to seek opportunities for partnerships with the state.

There are some peculiar candidates for ferry service. Three of the routes are on Lake Washington. King County studied cross-lake service in 2015 and found costs much higher, and ridership much lower, than competing bus services. (The 2015 study followed another Lake Washington ferry study in 2008 and preceded yet another that is now underway).

Some other options in the survey are long north-south routes, connecting Seattle to Des Moines, Tacoma, and Olympia. With prevailing travel patterns and the long distances, those routes are certain to be even higher cost and lower ridership than the hapless Lake Washington routes.

If there’s an opportunity for another successful passenger-only ferry, it’s surely on the cross-sound options, where road-based alternatives are circuitous and less time-competitive. In particular, the WSF ferry routes with meaningful walk-on traffic might be worth a look.

Boosted by the addition of several new routes, ridership on passenger-only ferries has grown , almost doubling on the King and Kitsap County routes since 2014. In 2016, Kitsap County voters approved a 0.3% sales tax increase which now finances two popular routes to Bremerton and Kingston, with a planned service to Southworth in the pipeline. The services are operated by the King County Marine Division. These two Kitsap routes carry 35 to 50 thousand riders per month depending on the season. King County operates its own routes to West Seattle and Vashon Island.

Existing and planned passenger only routes (slide: PSRC)

Fast ferries have high operating costs per rider. But the best ones offer riders a much faster connection across the sound than any practical alternative. The Lake Washington routes or the north-south routes on the Sound are just as expensive, but in no way superior to readily available alternatives. When a direct or fairly direct road connection is available, even a fast ferry is inevitably slower and requires heavier subsidies than a bus or train.

Why the region’s ongoing fascination with boats? There’s a romantic attachment. Page 1 of every ferry study is a reminder of the Mosquito fleet. The state funded study is something of an omnibus to local interests. How else does one get repeated studies of ferries from Seattle to inaccessible places like the Shilshole Marina? There’s an erzatz subarea equity – if every part of the County pays for ferries, everybody should have a boat to their neighborhood. The Renton ferry didn’t make the first cut for investigation in the last King County study, but it has an enthusiastic developer advocate. A Tacoma-Seattle ferry is on the list, just a year after another study estimated it would have operating costs of $33 per rider and require a steep $54 million in start-up capital.

It’s unlikely this study will lead to more ferry service soon. For the foreseeable future, ferry funding will be stretched to maintain current service, never mind adding routes.

27 Replies to “Another passenger ferry study”

  1. The ferry in the picture. Whether I ever use it or not, especially on major super-corridors like I-5 and SR 101, how many cars could it be getting out of the way of my bus?

    Mark Dublin

    1. If nobody is on it because it is too expensive, too slow, lacks connections at both ends, etc., then zero.

      To what I think you’re really asking, Rich Passage 1 has a capacity of 118 passengers, so in theory up to 118 cars.

      1. Sorry to be so long replying, Jason, and thanks for the information. But I wouldn’t be making this effort if I didn’t think that enough conditions may have changed to make another look at this mode of travel advisable.

        I’d never approach any possible fast-ferry route as a category or a topic. Plans might best begin with not only route alternatives, but also docking facilities and marine traffic control.

        But to me, a freeway lane designed for seventy miles an hour with nothing moving more than twenty for most of its length at the time it’s needed most, in no way classes as “inexpensive.” And it’s certainly the dictionary definition of “slow.”

        With its every connection as “iffy” as a single spilled fish-truck can render it.

        Mark Dublin

    2. Mark, zero. any mode shift to ferry from your lane will be filled by latent demand and more cars.

  2. The best case route for an Olympia-Seattle ferry is at least 58 miles. The driving distance is 61 miles. It’s a joke.

    1. For me, Sam O. “driving” means my car has to be “moving” in a linear direction. Rocking motion that makes a trucker post signs discouraging knocking doesn’t count.

      Since view out the windshield of the 1921 chain drive truck at the head of his expeditionary convoy was a trans-continental hog-wallow, the young Dwight D. Eisenhower doubtless resolved that an American “Autobahn’s” minimum speed would be dictated by length of time it’d take for the first Japanese Marine to hit the beach off the Golden Gate.

      To the General, this morning’s KIRO traffic report would’ve signified a 61-mile-long linear bullseye for the air force of The Rising Sun. Stuck Costs. If Americans however employed would get into the habit of billing our time. taxes for moving transit might start to pencil out in laser rather than lead.

      Mark Dublin

    2. Sam, once again the problem of how weak US English really is for negative commentary, however necessary. Three or four Four Letter Words. Even a girl dog gets five, and in the breeding world, it’s just what’s technically correct.

      For Dan’s sake this morning, probably good that we don’t know exactly how our Continent’s original inhabitants would’ve described the conditions our horde of HOMELESS Europeans were leaving them with.

      Thirteen generations of our ancestors, twenty-three loathsome diseases, and a whole menagerie of animals from all continents in one spit-spattered sentence…whole server would’ve gone down all the way to Patagonia. Would have blown out our every [ ] [ ]!

      “This Sprawl, Man, It Makes My Car Crawl” not too bad. But something boats sometimes do that’s the opposite of “Float” rhymes with a slur involving aroma. Been a long time since I’ve seen anything negative about house-boats. Any problems in sight between them and Ballard Link?

      Mark Dublin

  3. Yet another study to “prove” the obvious: Passenger-only ferries are expensive in the extreme in terms of cost per rider, and the sort-of successful routes mostly carry commuters at rush hour times, requiring huge capital costs to provide the required frequency levels.

    Why does this subject continue to be raised despite the findings of all earlier studies? Perhaps it is the dreams of those for those who “like” ferries without any intent to fund them.

    1. I just assume someone in a government agency takes a shine to the idea, then gives their consultant friend money to do this study that has been done before. Results are as before, repeat in 3-5 years.

  4. How about those of us who one, bill our time, and two, consider wasted time to be budgetary damage? Also, “Stop-and-Go” driving wears things a lot more mechanical than my temper.

    So I can’t overstate my INTENT to pay whatever taxes are needed to SAVE myself the damage inflicted by a region trapped solid in a concrete net full of motionless fume-emitting cars and trucks. Itself increasingly prone to collapse.

    And any chance the operating cost of fast waterborne transit might come down when there’s more of it? Without the trillions in publicly-funded thoroughfare and hardware designed specifically for motoring, nobody could afford a car at all.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Current passenger ferries have pretty much saturated the possible rush hour schedules for operations in downtown Seattle. This is a fixable problem, but not worth doing given other problems.

    The scheduled fast ferries are all east/west, and leave from terminals in Kitsap, West Seattle, and Vashon with good ground transportation and/or parking on both ends. In addition two of these boats replace car ferries taking passengers to Edmonds or Fauntleroy, necessitating an awkward third leg to get downtown.

    Bainbridge auto ferry has huge and needed capacity for passengers but takes only half an hour for crossing. Saving a few minutes with a faster ferry wouldn’t do much to help.

    A problem with Tacoma and Olympia is that it could take 30 minutes to get to a terminal (and parked) and onto the boat. Then another 30-60 minutes to get to downtown Seattle.

    There may develop a few more fast ferry routes which justify the subsidies. That could be an interesting discussion.

  6. I’m reminded of how the Bay Area relied on ferries after their 1989 earthquake closed BART and the Bay Bridge. There, the regional entity is called the Water EMERGENCY Transportation Authority to make this utility clear.

    Having said that, WETA has only been able to garner support for a pretty small fleet and they ironically rely on bridge tolls to subsidize the service. Their impact is minimal except for making specialized trips.

  7. This study is an embarassing waste of time and money, made positively infuriating by the unfolding COVID disaster that’s about to blitz the budgets for the roads we already have, and the land transit we actually need to build.

    The only plausible passenger fast ferry that doesn’t already exist is a seasonal Port Townsend to Seattle service, focused on weekend/tourist traffic. And that is an EXTREMELY low priority right now.

    1. Bruce, the way it’s being handled, which I’m afraid is routine, definitely needs a re-do.

      But if anything, to me the COVID crisis, an excellent example of how much damage sheer chance can carry, tells me that since we never know everything we need to know, we never stop thinking ahead while we’re tending to the present.

      With flames on all sides, a firefighter still keeps their eyes moving in all directions, and planning accordingly.

      Mark Dublin

    2. I agree. How can we talk about spending money on ferries while basic bus service is underfunded.

    3. It makes sense to plan for a better future. It is quite possible that Biden will be elected president, along with a Democratic congress. It is also quite possible that immunization starts a few months into his term, and the economy starts to slowly recover. At that point, major government spending will be in order. One of the hardest hit industries was tourism. Public transit was also hit really hard. Massive subsidies to fund public transit are fairly simple, and could easily happen. Spending money on tourist based projects isn’t as obvious, and you can make a case for the type of service you mentioned (Port Townsend to Seattle). But it won’t happen without a study.

  8. Someone who knows oceanographics: Over coming years, will rising sea-levels make Sound-oriented boat travel easier or more difficult?

    Mark Dublin

    1. It’s going to take a long time, on the order of two or more generations, before there’s enough to change the math around here. And at that point we’ll be dealing with more land flooding/loss (or endlessly higher seawalls). We’ll probably have more problems with displaced people than opportunities for increased travel, ultimately.

      A large quake, however, could potentially change the calculus (post-reconstruction). Not a fun thing to contemplate but possible.

      1. The large quake is definitely the much bigger concern in the current (and perhaps next) generation here. Certainly, all of us should be worried about it, and try our best to be ready to ride out a few weeks with no services and pretty well ruined living structures. I at least do not feel ready for this in any way, and I fear most people are in the same boat. It is pretty scary, IMHO – so thank you for bringing this up. Any and all awareness helps.

    2. How would it make a difference on the water? The main issue is coastal docks and streets being underwater, so they’ll have to move the docks inland.

  9. three of the PSRC candidate routes use waters limited to seven knots: between Kirkland and UW, Kenmore and UW, and Renton and SLU. all will perform poorly due to slow speed. the first pair is served by Route 372 at much lower cost and shorter waits and will be soon complemented by Link. the second pair is served by Route 255 at much lower cost and shorter waits and uses the tolled SR-520. the third pair is served by the F Line and Route 101. the Lake Washington terminal that could be studied is another from the past that is not subject to the seven knot speed limit: Madison Park. it could have frequent service by a consolidation of routes 8 and 11 connecting Madison Park and Uptown via Capitol Hill Link. cost per rider is also an odd metric. let’s first nail down the operating cost and then rides per bus hour. what if the ferry hour was several times greater than a bus hour? also note the lengthy walk between the water terminal and potential markets: UWMC or Link. this would be a wide seam and the opposite of seamless transit. why? one answer is the romance. former Councilmember Paul Kraabel asserted that riders would take water taxis due to the fun factor.

    1. also note the lengthy walk between the water terminal and potential markets

      Yeah, that is what I was getting at below when I wrote that the port locations did not “pencil out”. Kirkland to the UW looks pretty good until you look at the details, and realize that the UW port would be at the most remote part of campus, a long way from anywhere people want to go (as well as other transit). The low speed limit through the cut also doesn’t help.

      Paul Kraabel asserted that riders would take water taxis due to the fun factor.

      Maybe, but that is why I think it should be run through the tourist office. Of course there is dual use. For years the city treated the monorail as a tourist attraction, unaware that thousands of its own constituents were using it as transit. But unlike the monorail, these routes will be much slower than the transit alternative, which means they will be popular only for those wanting to enjoy the ride. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, but I think the public subsidy for such a venture — if there even is one — should be small within the city. I would rather use my tourism dollars helping areas that are less robust and more dependent on tourism than the greater Seattle area (which is booming).

      Of course the pandemic changes everything. Tourist businesses are being thrashed everywhere right now. As the country recovers, projects like this in various locations could make a lot of sense. In some cases it would make more sense to have an initial subsidy, then let a private company take it over (that might take the form of rebuilding docks, and then letting private companies use it). That way, as the local economy recovers, we don’t have to subsidize something that probably isn’t needed.

  10. For what I’m really curious about, Look up “Voskhod (hydrofoil)”. Means “Sunrise.” From the rail of a Swedish passenger ship, watched one or two of them come by in the Baltic. Impressive.

    More like a very low altitude airliner than a ferry-boat, “niche” could be as if we added an Amtrak passenger track a mile or so off-shore on its way to serve Tacoma, Steilacoom, and Olympia.

    See, my real goal this evening is to be done with these years of helplessness going by the guise of budget trade-offs. Fact we can’t get a single end-to-end TRANSIT lane that by definition is NEVER ALSO BUSINESS ACCESS isn’t budgeting. It’s Bowing To Bullying.

    Opposite to alphabetical order, in this effort, the WAY always follows the WILL.

    Mark Dublin

  11. From a public transit standpoint, there are a couple factors that can lead to a good passenger ferry run:

    1) Significant time savings over the alternative. Typically this is a (much) shorter distance, to make up for the much larger dwell time. But it can also be as simple as lack of physical infrastructure. If the lower West Seattle bridge collapsed tomorrow (along with the upper one) the West Seattle Ferry would be looking really good for a while.

    2) Very large demand between two points. While some ferries stop at multiple locations, the large dwell times reduce the value of trying to string together a set of stops (like other forms of mass transit). Big commuter ferries like Staten Island and North Vancouver come to mind. Even if it was just as fast to run a bus there, it would probably be more expensive, simply because of all the buses you would need. You could run a train, but doing so is expensive and inappropriate if the demand is more point to point.

    Locally, there is a fair amount of demand in the Lake Union/Lake Washington locations, as well as some potential time savings, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t pencil out. The port locations are just too weak to justify public expenditure. Vancouver is the same way. But Vancouver has two private ferry systems which shuttle people around various False Creek locations. They can tailor their service towards commuters, as well as tourists. It seems possible that Seattle could do the same, possibly with the help of local or state government.

    Good values from a ferry public transit standpoint would have to come from Puget Sound. Seattle is unusual in that it has automobile ferries that dock right in the heart of the city. Other cities have passenger-only ferries to the center of the city, and/or car ferries to the outskirts. There are a few cities that have automobile docks right in town, but I’m pretty sure we are the leaders in making it extremely easy to just drive off a boat into the heart of a major city.

    As off-putting as that may be, it results in a big subsidy for passengers. As a result, many of the great runs on Puget Sound have already been taken. Not all of the automobile ferries go downtown, though, which is why passenger ferries to downtown (e. g. Vashon to downtown) make sense. There are a handful of these that could work, but they would likely be dependent on parking or shuttle service on the other end. High speed ferries for some of the longer runs can save a lot of time. As to whether it is worth it is complicated, but the value is clear.

    In general, I would say the easy fruit has been picked. There is no affordable investment in ferry infrastructure that will lead to great time savings for lots of people. But there may be little projects (e. g. Southworth to downtown Seattle) that could be a decent value.

    I think the best potential is for tourist centered routes. For example, I would be thrilled with a ferry to Port Angeles. Pair it with a shuttle bus up to Hurricane Ridge, and it would make for a fantastic weekend trip. This would help the Port Angeles tourism economy. The challenge is when and how often to run it. In that regard, it is similar to Trailhead Direct bus service. In general, these types of services lose money. But they do OK on nice days, and terrible on rainy ones. A ferry has the advantage of being able to take reservations, reducing the risk. But it would likely still be seasonable (even though there is a potential for some skiers using it in the winter*).

    My guess is the routes that survive for further consideration will be in this category.

    * I like to backcountry ski, and the skiing up there is great. There is also a lift within the park, which could be popular. Whether that would translate to enough ridership to keep things going in the winter is hard to say — it would require a lot of promotion, which again is why much of this will likely be run through the tourism office.

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