State throws hat in POF ring

Harper residents struggling to keep foot ferries out of their tiny waterfront nook got a surprising boost on Wednesday when Washington State Ferries announced plans to bring passenger-only service to South Kitsap.

The move, if successful, will effectively ground Kitsap Transit’s attempt to launch a similar service off the Harper dock.

After scrapping nearly all plans to continue or expand passenger-only ferry (POF) runs two years ago when funding evaporated, WSF detailed in a report released Wednesday that it now sees a viable future in expanding its only remaining POF service between Seattle and Vashon to include a Southworth stop serving South Kitsap commuters now riding car ferries from Fauntleroy.

The report, which the Legislature requested last year, claimed that not only would the new triangle route be feasible, but that a privately operated Southworth to Seattle POF service — similar to those already successfully revived by Kitsap Transit on the Kingston and Bremerton routes abandoned by WSF in 2003 — would take away half of WSF’s current POF passengers and as much as $1.6 million in annual revenue.

“WSF should operate a Vashon-Southworth-Seattle passenger-only route,” the report concluded. “A private service from Seattle to Southworth would likely siphon federal funds from WSF ... and dilute WSF passenger revenues on the Vashon service, without providing a superior service for customers.”

To enact its plan, WSF must secure $3 million from either the state Legislature or federal funds for improvements to two mothballed vessels — the Chinook and Snohomish — and upgrades to the ferry terminals at Southworth and Vashon.

In addition, the ferry workers’ unions would have to agree to revise the current labor contracts to allow split shifts, allowing WSF to cover morning and evening peak periods without paying overtime, keeping the routes cost-effective.

Kitsap Transit Executive Director Richard Hayes said WSF’s report has not ended his agency’s plans to bring passenger-only ferries to the Harper Dock just yet, but he will not create a competing service if the Legislature approves the state ferry plan.

“I’m waiting now for the full package,” Hayes said, referring to the Legislature’s transportation budget, which could be released this spring. “In the past, the Legislature has supported such issues, while the Senate has not. But nobody is willing to tell me (where it stands now).”

Hayes said he would gracefully step aside if WSF was able to provide South Kitsap passenger-only ferries, but “just because they’re proposing it, doesn’t mean it’s a slam dunk.

“(The state) has a history of inconsistency,” he said. “The worst-case scenario is they get the funding, they fix the boats up, then at the next session, the Legislature backs out, and we would have lost the entire year of planning. We would be back where we started.”

So far, both Aqua Express and Mosquito Fleet have applied to the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to provide the POF proposed by Kitsap Transit, from what will most likely be a revamped Harper Dock.

In separate letters to the UTC, legislators Rep. Edward Murray, D-Seattle, the chair of the House Transportation Committee, and both 26th District representatives — Democrats Derek Kilmer and Pat Lantz — urged the UTC to delay consideration of the two companies’ POF applications.

“The 2005 legislature will be deciding whether to continue or indeed expand (state-funded POF) service in the West Sound,” Kilmer and Lantz wrote, along with Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, and two Seattle representatives. “According to (WSF), a new private service between Seattle and the Southworth area would effectively close out the state’s option to offer POF on this route, and could even lead to the demise of the existing state-funded Vashon-Seattle POF route.”

Hayes said Kitsap Transit is moving forward with the Harper POF plans, which includes forming an interest-based committee that will be exploring issues surrounding the creation of the service, especially those concerns raised by the neighboring community.

For those with questions about the project, Kitsap Transit has posted answers on its website to questions raised at two public meetings last month. 

In the meantime, the UTC will hold public hearings on the private ferry companies’ requests to offer service to the area.

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