Voters will decide foot ferry fate

It will be up to Kitsap voters this fall to determine whether Kitsap Transit should operate fast foot ferries in Puget Sound.

Gov. Gary Locke signed House Bill 1853 on Wednesday that authorizes public transportation benefit areas such as Kitsap Transit to run passenger ferries in Puget Sound. It also allows transit agencies to collect taxes — subject to voter approval — to run the system, to operate ferries within 10 miles of state ferry operations and have access to state ferry facilities.

The bill also assumes the state will step down from the passenger-only ferry business. The move was prime-sponsored by Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, and supported by Rep. Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo, Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, and Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton.

Washington State Ferries officials announced late last year they wanted to discontinue foot-ferry service for cost-savings reasons and, in turn, reinvest those savings back into the overall ferry program.

The state Transportation Commission agreed with the proposed cancellation in February.

Kitsap Transit officials want to buy 14 new passenger boats to operate out of Bremerton, Kingston and Southworth. The three Kitsap vessels would travel directly to downtown Seattle.

Transit officials say the smaller boats can move more quickly in the water without causing the beach-damaging wakes the larger state vessels are known for in Rich Passage. Crossing times could be completed within a half hour, and boats would operate most frequently during the peak commuter times.

Kitsap Transit officials predict the service would most likely not start until next fall.

A ballot measure — either in September or November — would ask Kitsap voters to OK a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase and a three-tenths of 1 percent increase in car-tab renewals to help fund the service.

“The car tab increase wouldn’t affect car purchases because we don’t want to penalize the car dealers,” said Kitsap Transit Executive Director Dick Hayes.

That’s why the increase would be tagged onto renewals only.

But with the regular legislative session scheduled to end Sunday, lawmakers are still debating competing transportation budget proposals, and competing ideas about Kitsap Transit.

While the Senate plan provides zero funding for passenger-only ferries, the House proposals keeps the state — in some degree — in the foot-ferry program.

The Senate’s 10-year funding package would raise a whopping $4.2 billion, anchored by a nickel gas-tax increase.

The House’s version would raise about $3.1 billion, and hinges on a 4-cent gas tax increase, to be implemented a penny a year for four years.

Locke’s proposed transportation plan provides Kitsap Transit with $5 million in start-up funding for the agency’s foot-ferry program, rather than supporting pared-down passenger-only service run by the state.

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