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.
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.
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.