Opinion

Foot ferries face high costs and few riders

The effort to provide passenger-only ferry (POF) service from Kingston to Seattle doesn’t seem to be going well despite the encouraging words from boosters who got the project going.

Riders are too few, and operating costs are too high from all appearances.

This funding problem would be faced by any effort to make POF service available unless there is substantial demand for the service.

Watching from here in South Kitsap, one has to wonder why the Kingston Port District started this venture without reasonable certainty that plenty of fare-paying riders would use it.

We may get our chance to do more than wonder from afar, if Kitsap Transit can succeed in developing a “foot ferry” capable of running at high speed through Rich Passage from Bremerton to Seattle.

Maybe people don’t consider Bremerton to be part of what we think of as South Kitsap, but it’s our most likely additional POF connection to Seattle.

It’s already possible to ride King County’s POF from Vashon to Seattle after riding from Southworth to Vashon on the state ferry, but going straight from Southworth to Seattle doesn’t appear to be in the cards.

Something similar could be possible if Kitsap Transit can provide a suitable boat and find the needed public funds to operate it.

The connection between Port Orchard and Bremerton is already provided by Kitsap Transit’s POF service, which is said to be no more expensive to operate than buses that would have to drive around Sinclair Inlet.

The first question is whether there can be a fast POF service from Bremerton that South Kitsap riders could connect with once they get to Bremerton. Test runs of Kitsap Transit’s new ferry design may answer this question in the affirmative.

If it becomes physically possible to provide POF service that gets people to and from Seattle in less time than the competing state ferry, the next question is whether there would be enough riders to make the run viable.

The faster service could attract riders who now use the state ferry, if the fare is not so much higher than the state’s fare that the time saved on a faster POF isn’t worth the price.

Perhaps after a few years of successful POF service between Seattle and Bremerton, the number of riders would increase as people decide to live here and work there rather than continue commuting by motor vehicle over there.

But getting to the point that riders use the new POF service after becoming Kitsap residents requires operating successfully for long enough that people believe they can depend on the service.

During the first few years, it seems obvious that public funds would have to fill what is likely to be a large gap between total costs and revenue from fares. Even after the initial growing period, it is likely that public funds would be needed to pay a significant part of the total cost.

So far, there hasn’t been any indication that POF service — whether provided by the state or others — is so desirable that riders would pay enough to eliminate the need for public funding obtained from taxpayers.

The question whether local taxpayers would be willing to pay a substantial part of the cost is probably the most important.

Being physically able to run a faster POF service that attracts riders from near and far who are willing to pay a premium for the service gets us nowhere if public funding is unavailable.

Twice before, Kitsap voters have rejected tax increases that would have made up the difference between costs and fare revenue.

Prior to those elections, there seemed to be little enthusiasm in South Kitsap for POF service at taxpayer expense.

If we really have little or no desire for the service, who does?

As the Kingston Port District and Kitsap Transit have shown, the willingness to sink public funds into getting POF service started exists, but where is the desire to continue it?

Perhaps we can only answer this question by holding yet another election to ask voters for a tax increase to pay for the service.

 

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