Opinion

Common sense and low-wake ferries

The tale of high-speed, low-wake passenger-only ferries that appears to have no end would be amusing if not so expensive. Apparently, as in so many other instances in this state, the opinion and will of the taxpayers has little impact when the political leadership focuses in on a solution. With the solution firmly identified, they are then free to find any number of problems that can be solved. In the case of high-speed ferries, after clear rejection by the voters and after buying and selling two boats at significant loss to the taxpayers, the saga continues.

The “new” high-speed passenger ferries are a catamaran–hydrofoil blend design put together by Teknicraft Design Ltd. in New Zealand. (So much for “Buy America”). The craft is being built by All American Marine in Bellingham. Most of the estimated $5.3 million cost of the project is being covered by a variety of imaginative federal grants (can you say tax dollars?). While there is a lot of innovation in the design, it is the actual operation and the ability to avoid those pesky class action lawsuits that will tell the tale.

Another aspect of the project that might be of some concern is cost effectiveness. We have an existing ferry system that cannot afford to purchase the craft necessary to meet current service needs. We have a system that operates at a deficit and has no plan to find its way to solvency other than cutting runs and increasing user fees. So how will the new craft make out? Let’s start with a couple of numbers. The cost is estimated at $5.3 million. The craft holds 77 passengers. The fare for the roundtrip, Bremerton to Seattle and back, might be as high as $18 but look for something closer to $10. For analysis, we can settle on an assumed fare of $15. At that rate, each run, with a full boat, will create revenue of $1,155. That amount is before the cost of the round-trip operation. It will require 4,589 round trips to amortize the capital cost of the boat. Considering six crossings a day for commute times (with an empty or near empty boat going one way), it will take 765 days or about 3 years to cover that initial cost. Of course when considering actual boat loading and crossings the figure is probably closer to 6 years. When including the operating costs in the overall equation and considering actual net gain might be less than $2 for each passenger carried, the time to amortize is 24 years or essentially never. From a financial standpoint, perhaps as few as 200 riders will be able to enjoy a slightly quicker ride back and forth, with probable continuing subsidy from other riders and taxpayers for the life of the craft. That is if everything goes as designed and planned.

There is, of course, another possible outcome. The craft may not be quite so low wake as expected and the Rich Passage shoreline property owners will have another go at the state treasury. You have to question the business plan that opens the door to litigation involving people who own the most expensive property in the county. Of course, if the wake reduction is not quite as good as expected, the craft could always be operated at slower speeds through the passage. But wait, didn’t we already try that approach? If I recall right, we ended up selling those previous high-speed ferries for about 10 cents on the dollar. I guess there must be a market for failed design boats somewhere.

Of course there is always a chance that, if the Bremerton run doesn’t work, the craft could be shifted to a Kingston-Seattle run. Oops, we wouldn’t do it with the previous two boats that were a good fit for that run. Then, when a commercial operator tried, they could not make that run profitable. As a last resort, we could always slice off the bow of the craft and mount it in the new Bremerton downtown park just above the entry to the “Burwell Funnel.”

Jack Hamilton can be reached at gradiver@wavecable.com.

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