Kitsap Transit director floats plan to save foot ferries

"With state ferry service jeopardized by Initiative 695, Kitsap Transit director Dick Hayes and Horluck Transportation owner Hilton Smith are discussing how a public-private partnership could allow foot ferries to continue their cross-Puget Sound trips.It would take higher passenger fares for certain. Hayes’ plan would charge a one-way fare of $2.50 to $4, while Smith would set the fee at $5 or more. It would also likely require a Kitsap County sales tax increase of up to 1 percent, which voters could approve specifically for high-capacity transportation.“I don’t know if we’d need the full amount,” Hayes said of the tax hike. “I’m not sure how to approach it.” If state passenger ferries go out of service June 27 next year when the summer schedule takes effect, would riders see a gap in service? “If we want continuity, the public would have to vote in the very near future,” Hayes answered.The Kitsap Transit board of directors must first make a decision later this month on whether a public-private partnership is feasible.Hayes shied away from naming Horluck as a contractor to operate and maintain ferries under such a plan, but Smith said he and Hayes have discussed the idea. Their organizations work cooperatively already. Kitsap Transit reimburses Horluck for ferrying commuters across Sinclair Inlet between Port Orchard and Bremerton.The idea of a private cross-Sound ferry has been floated before. Smith asked the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission for permission to launch the service in 1996. At the time, Washington State Ferries and two Seattle-based private ferry companies objected to Smith’s plan.But Nov. 10, eight days after voters statewide approved the auto license tab tax-cutting I-695, state ferries director Paul Green did an about face. Privatized ferry service “is probably a good idea that ought to be pursued,” he said. State legislators assembled at a meeting to discuss the idea seemed to agree, although Bremerton Mayor Lynn Horton was cautious.“I don’t want to make this an easy fix” for the ferry system, Horton said. “It still has to be a partnership with the state and county. I don’t want the state to walk away leaving us holding the bag.”Hayes said his idea for a public-private partnership would require use of the state’s existing passenger-only boats and access to existing terminals. The Legislature must authorize this use as well as explicitly authorize the run, Hayes said.He said he will also need “reasonably reliable” dollar figures in the next two weeks to give the transit board an idea of what the program would cost. Smith is concerned that the pending Chinook lawsuit could entangle any foot ferry provider in expensive litigation. “That’s a real deterrent to private or public fast ferries,” he said.Smith added that he hasn’t given much thought to operating a public-private partnership with Kitsap Transit, but he had specific ideas about how the state ferries could be better run.The system should be running smaller boats that are cheaper to operate, allow more regular scheduled departures and are lighter and thus more wake-friendly, he said. He added that the ferry system’s overhead costs are too high and union contracts too restrictive to allow efficient operation.“The only viable public-private partnership I can see is if the public (agency) acquires the vessels and they’re run under contract with a private operator,” Smith said.“Kitsap County is dead meat without ferries,” Smith added. “It’s like saying we’re not going to provide roads to Snohomish County.”"

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