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Passenger-only ferry bill introduced

State Rep. Beverly Woods (R-Kingston) this week proposed a plan to have passenger-only service resume between Seattle, Vashon Island and several Kitsap ports, including perhaps Southworth, through a publicly funded partnership of state, local and private transit groups.

House Bill 3270 argues there is a compelling need for passenger-only ferry service on Puget Sound, to be operated by Washington State Ferries or local governments through the sale or disposition of existing Washington State Ferries’ passenger-only vessels.

The proceeds from the sales of WSF’s vessels — the Snohomish, Chinook, Skagit and Kalama — in 2007 would help subsidize the runs, according to the bill.

The routes would be operated by private operators but under contract to local governments, such as Kitsap Transit, which would partner with Washington State Ferries.

“We’ve been waiting for this for more than 10 years,” Woods said. “We need to subsidize service for these four first-tier locations, and they all should be treated equally.”

Currently, Woods said, the Vashon route is prioritized above the rest. And the Kingston-Seattle route, operated by Aqua Express, has suspended service.

Woods said after the four services are in place residents will be able to see a perceptible improvement in traffic, especially in the northern part of the county.

“Many people moved to the Kingston area under the assumption that passenger service to Seattle would exist,” Woods said. “Now, people want the service back. They didn’t have a chance to succeed, and it never had proper marketing. We need to offer consistent service on this route, and you will see a difference.”

The crux of the proposal is to sell two dormant boats and use the proceeds to provide initial funds for the new service. Woods said it is not an option to use the old boats for the new service, as they create high wake levels and are at the end of their expected product lifespan.

Kitsap Transit will be a partner in the operation. Kitsap Transit director Dick Hayes has expressed support for the bill, saying that it will give greater local control and prevent the misfortune that has befallen previous enterprises that have run out of money before the service can begin.

Hayes also expressed support for the proposed apprenticeship program that would primarily enable crew members from the smaller, passenger-only vessels to graduate into jobs on the large passenger and vehicle ferries.

Hayes does not perceive the concept of an apprenticeship program as a requirement for unionization of private operator crews. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity for certification and documentation of experience and training that leads to greater future employment opportunities.

Woods said the Kingston and Bremerton lines could begin pretty much immediately.

Service to Southworth, however, will require new dock construction.

Woods hopes this bill will allow the Kingston-Seattle foot ferry service to resume. The only operator of the route, Aqua Express, obtained a certificate from the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission in 2004 to run the route and started services in January 2005.

However, due to increases in fuel cost and low ridership, the company had to stop service in October. Officials said it would like to start services again this summer.

Aqua Express spokesman Jim Boldt said the company is supportive of Woods’ bill. By going the route Woods has proposed, it lets the local transit agencies get the financial support it needs to get POFs up and running, including partnering with private companies that have the equipment but not funding support, like Aqua Express.

“It’s unrealistic to think a private carrier, even in contract with public agencies, can provide the service the public wants without a subsidy,” Boldt said. “For the past few years, it’s been unclear as to whether the state was in POF business or not. Bev’s bill answers the question. Sell (the boats) — (WSF’s) out of it.”

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