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Are passenger-only ferries the key to solving our congestion?

A Kitsap Transit passenger-only, fast ferry near the dock. (Photo courtesy of KitsapTransit/Facebook)

We often point to our geography as creating a lot of the traffic congestion we deal with — multiple lakes, Puget Sound, for example — but why can’t those obstacles be turned into opportunities?

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Our region has so much water, why not use it to move people around? Think of the Mosquito Fleets of small ships and boats carrying people from Olympia and Tacoma and across Lake Washington before the advent of cars. Can our region recapture a little bit of that to help ease congestion?

“This really is a kind of back to the future kind of thing,” said the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Gil Cerise. “The original highways and throughways in our region and Puget Sound were the waterways.  This is kind of going back to that original form of transportation.”

Cerise is a program manager in the transportation policy division at the PSRC. That agency just finished a one year study on the feasibility of passenger-only ferry service around Puget Sound. The legislature wanted to know if expanding this type of service makes sense. The study looked at 45 potential routes across 12 counties. What is the demand? What kind of environmental issues are there? What are the costs? What are the obstacles?

Cerise said people are watching what Kitsap Transit has done with passenger-only ferry service, and they like what they are seeing. More than 35,000 riders a month, pre-pandemic, between Bremerton and Seattle, and Kingston and Seattle. Why not connect other places via the water?

“As these routes have been implemented and people are seeing the successes of those routes, it’s generated interest, not just in our region but across Puget Sound,” Cerise said.

In looking at the potential routes, Cerise said the study found seven of them are feasible and show potential opportunities: Tacoma to Seattle, Whidbey Island to Everett, Kenmore to the UW, Kirkland to UW, Renton to UW, Renton to South Lake Union, and Bellingham to Friday Harbor on a seasonal basis.  The thought is that getting people to the UW gives them direct access to light rail to continue their trips. Most of the routes on the water ran faster than current transit service, and the ferry from Renton to the UW picked up 13 minutes over the bus in this analysis.

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The annual cost estimates for these routes run from $1.8-$4 million. Ridership estimates are less than two thousand passengers a day to start.

There are certainly obstacles, which Cerise admitted, including reduced speed zones, and environmental concerns like potential beach erosion from increased wakes and waves.

“There is the confined waterway issue,” he said. “So there are a lot of different issues on the waterways that are also things that are kind of cautionary tales, and the implementer needs think about as they address that.”

It’s now up to the legislature to see what it wants to do with this information, if anything. Cerise says the goal of this study was not to create a cheerleading document but an honest look at feasibility.

The next steps are up to someone else.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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