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Horluck going out for bids

Kitsap Transit is expecting some healthy interest from the ferry community when it puts the operation of its Horluck Ferry subsidiary out to bid, perhaps as early as next month.

Although the bid plan has been in the works since January, when former Horluck owner Hilton Smith sold the business to Kitsap Transit for $1.52 million, the agency only got permission on Tuesday to go out to bid. Kitsap Transit is answerable to the Kitsap Transit Board of Directors — a multi-jurisdictional group that must sign off on all major changes or developments in transit service. However, because of the advance work put in, Kitsap Transit service development director John Clauson said it could be only a matter of weeks before the bid package is completed.

“It is possible,” he said. “We have been working on the specs.”

Kitsap Transit is looking for a ferry operator capable of handling a level of service far beyond that which Horluck currently offers. Clauson said the agency wants to run boats every 15 minutes during peak times, which would involve more boats, more efficient operations and faster speeds than now. Kitsap Transit is also looking into the possibility of bringing back single-crew-member boats. Clauson said the single-crew boats would be cheaper to operate — fewer salaries to pay — and might make it easier to improve efficiency.

However, this plan would also require buying a fleet of at least three new boats and retaining the Carlisle II as a back-up boat. Per Coast Guard regulations, only ferries with capacities under 49 passengers can legally operate with a one-man crew. The Carlisle II can carry twice that.

Clauson has already made a trip to a boat-builder in Idaho to look at its 49-and-under options. The vessels that best fit Kitsap Transit’s needs cost $250,000 apiece new.

“Boats aren’t cheap,” Clauson said.

By contrast, the century-old Carlisle II carries a price tag of $340,000, $20,000 of which has already been paid by Kitsap Transit. Kitsap Transit expects to pay the rest by the time Smith’s outfit leaves in late December. Clauson said Kitsap Transit sees the Carlisle II as a good investment — both as a piece of history and as a potential safety net should the agency choose to go with the smaller, lower-capacity boats.

At the time the sales contract was signed in January, daily ridership was at 1,306 — 27,340 for the entire month. Since then, Clauson said, Kitsap Transit added Sunday service and a dedicated boat between Bremerton and Annapolis — eliminating the infamous “triangle run” — and ridership has increased. It is possible, Clauson said, that 49-passenger boats may at one point be unable to keep up with the glut of riders.

“If ridership explodes, the Carlisle has the extra capacity,” he explained. “Having that reserve capacity is certainly something that’s nice to have.”

Kitsap Transit plans to launch a new type of payment system with the new ferry operator — whomever that turns out to be. Currently, Kitsap Transit reimburses Smith a set rate per passenger plus a flat monthly fee for bicycles. In June, that payment came out to $51,341.71 — a figure Clauson said was about average.

The new contract will pay the new operator on an hourly basis. Clauson had no estimates as to how much that could cost on a monthly basis — that figure will be part of the bid offered by would-be contractors.

One surety is that Smith will be unable to bid for the new contract. Kitsap Transit has had a long, frequently unpleasant history with Smith and one of the tenets of the sales contract was that Smith would have to leave at the end of 12 months and not come back.

“The past 12 months is the best it’s ever been (between us),” Clauson said. “I hardly talk to Mr. Smith anymore.”

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