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Friday, January 21, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Company seeks to run Kitsap passenger ferry

Seattle Times staff reporter

The operator of a whale-watching company has applied to operate passenger-ferry service from south Kitsap County to downtown Seattle, but he could end up competing with Washington State Ferries for the same run.

Mike Bennett, owner of Mosquito Fleet, filed an application last month with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to run a foot ferry from Harper, near Southworth, to Pier 66 in Seattle.

"We think there's a market from Gig Harbor [in Pierce County] to that area," Bennett said. "This is a whole population that really needs a direct Seattle connection."

Bennett was surprised to learn that the Washington State Ferries was considering the same route. The ferry system is preparing a report to the state Legislature to operate a route from Southworth to Vashon Island to downtown Seattle.

Ray Deardorf, state ferries' planning director, said nearly half of the riders on the Vashon-Seattle passenger ferry come from Southworth by car ferry and transfer to the passenger boat, underscoring the need for Southworth passenger service.

Except for Vashon Island, the state dropped passenger-ferry service in September 2003 in a cost-cutting move.

Bennett said he is surprised the state is considering getting back into the foot-ferry business. "The state ferries vowed to get out of the passenger-ferry business," he said.

He said the secret to passenger-ferry success is a large population base and a short run, both of which a Harper-to-Seattle route would have. He said the trip would be about 30 minutes and he's proposing fares of $7 one-way or $12 round-trip, more than twice the $5.70 total passengers are charged by the state ferries for a Bainbridge-to-Seattle trip on the car ferry.

Bennett's Mosquito Fleet owns the 149-passenger St. Nicholas. It operates ferry service between Everett and Friday Harbor in the summer and also does summer whale-watching trips.

Meanwhile, Dick Hayes, head of Kitsap Transit, has written a letter to the UTC supporting Bennett's plan. Kitsap Transit also supported passenger-ferry service from Bremerton to Seattle, which began last fall, and a new Kingston-to-Seattle route that started this week.

"While there are more pieces of the puzzle ... in South Kitsap than in the other two Kitsap startups, it is our intention to pursue everything from substantial additional park-and-ride lot expansions to dock upgrades, installation of an appropriate float and creation of a small shore side terminal for transit buses," Hayes said in a letter to the UTC.

Alice Tawresey, who chairs the passenger-only subcommittee of the Marine Transportation Association of Kitsap County, said private operators should be encouraged to provide foot-ferry service.

"Washington State Ferries has had 20 years of discussion serving these areas and is only now talking about any real plans to do so," she said. "This is because of the on-again, off-again nature of passenger-only ferries with the state. The Legislature has been very unstable in terms of providing funds for the service and every time there's a budget crisis, the passenger ferries are the first to be threatened or discontinued."

Hayes said it could take two years or longer to start the service from Harper. A dock is estimated to cost as much as $4 million.

Harper residents are worried that a passenger-ferry dock will ruin the tiny, quiet neighborhood. Washington State Ferries had a ferry terminal there until the 1950s, when Southworth was built.

There's no parking and windy roads, said resident Judy Peterson. "We're afraid people will use our yards for parking lots and we live on a quiet little road that dead-ends on the harbor dock."

The UTC said other firms have until Jan. 26 to protest the application or file their own. The application will then be set for a public hearing.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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