March 11--BREMERTON -- It has the boat, but no money to run it.
Kitsap Transit's efforts to operate a fast passenger ferry between Bremerton and Seattle is touted by local leaders as nothing short of an economic stimulus for the Kitsap Peninsula. A federally funded tried-and-tested vessel capable of running the route in 35 minutes now rests in a Port Townsend dry dock.
But with a state ferry system reluctant to return to passenger-only service, the effort will have to come from within the county, likely along with new taxes to operate it.
"The bottom line is there's not going to be operation of this ferry without voter-approved funding," said Kitsap County Commissioner Josh Brown, a member of Kitsap Transit's board of directors.
Historically, that means rough waters ahead for the hydro-foiled catamaran named the Rich Passage 1. The transit agency's two previous attempts in 2003 and 2007 to run passenger ferries from Bremerton as well as Southworth and Kingston failed at the ballot box.
This time is different, leaders like Brown, Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent and others say, thanks to a state-of-the-art vessel capable of putting out a smaller wake that does not damage shorelines and bulkheads on its journey, but still accomplishes the task of crossing Puget Sound in 35 minutes -- a prospect they say would spur economic development in the region.
Preliminary findings indicate the Rich Passage 1 can operate through its namesake snaky strait, between Bainbridge Island and South Kitsap, without its wakes damaging the beaches, according to a research firm that's part of an eight-year, $12.7 million federally funded project tasked with solving the wake problem.
That project climaxed in 2012 with four months of passenger service mostly during commuter times, offering a taste of what 35 minute service would be like. The 117-passenger ferry started running 40 trips a week in June and bumped them to 60 in September.
But while federal money funded that experiment, it can't contribute to continued operations. And if Kitsap Transit can't find a way to put the vessel into service, it can't continue to own it under its obligations to the feds.
At a minimum, Kitsap Transit has entered an agreement with state officials to operate Rich Passage 1 when problems arise with the state ferries' aging fleet. But long-term, the transit agency will have to come up with a business plan on how to operate -- and where to find money to operate with.
A ROCKY HISTORY
Fast ferries have a lackluster track record here. Despite a ferry run to Seattle that carries the highest percentage of passengers to cars of any route in Washington State Ferries' system, attempts to operate a fast ferry to and from Bremerton have endured failure after failure.
Washington State Ferries introduced them to Bremerton in 1984, with the 319-seat Tyee. It bought the 250-passenger Skagit and Kalama in 1989, one to expand the Bremerton route, the other to start service to Vashon Island.
Residents along Rich Passage claimed the boats' wakes were damaging the shoreline. A WSF consultant found that if they continued to run at full speed, the boats would probably speed up beach erosion and bulkhead deterioration. In summer 1990, the state slowed them to less than 12 knots through Rich Passage, increasing the travel time from 40 minutes to 55 minutes, barely faster than car ferries.
WSF, to decrease both the wakes and crossing times, acquired the 350-passenger Chinook in 1998 and Snohomish in 1999. They skimmed between terminals in 30 minutes, but didn't pass the wake test. Shoreline residents sued, resulting in a permanent slowdown. The boats continued to run until September 2003, when WSF decided it could no longer afford to operate slowed fast ferries.
In return, the Legislature granted Kitsap Transit the ability to ask voters to support a passenger-only ferry plan with service from Bremerton, Southworth and Kingston to downtown Seattle. In November 2003, the agency asked for a local sales tax increase of 3/10s of 1 percent plus a license tab increase of 3/10 of 1 percent. Voters rejected the proposition, 61.6 percent to 38.6 percent.