Kitsap Transit to rescue foot ferries?

Kitsap Transit has a plan in hand that could rescue the state’s passenger-only ferry service from ending next summer.

You’ve heard that before.

It is the second time in three years the county’s transit agency has proffered a proposal to keep POF service running strong in Kitsap County.

Washington State Ferries officials warned the State Transportation Commission it would discontinue POF service in July 2000, after losing the value-based car tab tax as a significant funding source in the wake of Initiative 695 approval.

Kitsap Transit put a plan together then to replace the highly popular passenger boats.

But the Legislature came up with enough money, and fares were increased, to keep the passenger-only ferries running a little longer.

“We’ve been through all of this before after Initiative 695 was approved,” said Kitsap Transit Director Dick Hayes. “This passenger-only ferry plan is actually a three-year-old plan that has been updated and revised.”

That passenger-ferry plan has risen to the fore once again, since WSF director Mike Thorne on Wednesday told the state Transportation Commission that POF service from Bremerton and Vashon Island to downtown Seattle will have to end after June 15, and that the 1 a.m. sailing from Edmonds to Kingston on Friday and Saturday will have to be stopped, to save $6 million a year.

Those funds are needed to invest in the future and put toward replacement vessels, WSF officials say, citing the system’s aging fleet.

“If our aging vessels are not replaced and our terminals are not properly maintained, we will no longer have a viable ferry system,” said Thorne in a prepared statement.

The WSF proposal, which is a response to the need to maintain the system in the midst of a funding crisis, is not a done deal yet, since it must meet legislative approval and go through a public process.

But the revised Kitsap Transit passenger-ferry plan hinges on vessels that are smaller and lighter than the Chinook and Snohomish models.

These catamarans would run not only out of Bremerton, but out of Southworth as well.

The Chinook and Snohomish could operate more freely on the Kingston route, which is predominantly open water. That plan should be popular among Bainbridge Island residents, since adding POF service to Kingston could take pressure off the Bainbridge route.

These larger, 350-passenger boats can go up to 35 knots, but are slowed as they travel through Rich Passage since they produce wakes that threaten the shorelines.

The smaller, lighter 150-passenger boats are expected to produce much smaller wakes, and are proven to be more fuel-efficient, bringing down the projected operational costs.

And five of these smaller boats can be purchased for the $10 to $11 million it takes to purchase a Chinook-class vessel.

And they can move quickly, at about 42 knots, without any expected controversy.

There would be about 12 of the boats, plus the Chinook, Snohomish and Tyee.

Funding and the authority to operate a service would be achieved through a transit authority approved for POF service, and would have to be approved by voters living within the affected area.

Such an authority could include Kitsap and King counties and possibly other jurisdictions. Funding sources could either be found in a sales tax or possibly the value-based motor vehicle excise tax. Plus, the authority would apply for federal funding as well.

Hayes admits Transit’s passenger-only plan is broad and far-reaching and goes beyond just replacing the Bremerton and Vashon service.

But there’s a reason for that.

“We serve the entire county,” Hayes said. “We don’t just serve Bremerton, and we don’t just run buses in Bremerton. Besides, people in these areas (Kingston and Southworth) have been led to expect some service.”

But since Initiative 695 succeeded and Referendum 51 failed, that service has yet to surface, he said.

Thorne is supportive of Kitsap Transit’s efforts.

“Washington State Ferries stands ready to assist King and Kitsap County leaders should they choose to pursue future passenger-only ferry service,” Thorne said. “I remain a firm believer in the concept of ferries as transit and in the role passenger-only ferries play in Puget Sound. Although we will no longer be a player in this service, we will support public and private effort to make passenger-only service a reality in the future.”

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