Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Second firm seeks passenger-ferry to Kitsap County

Seattle Times staff reporter

A second company has joined the race to offer passenger-ferry service between South Kitsap County and downtown Seattle, and the state continues to hint that it also may join the ferry sweepstakes.

Aqua Express, which just started foot-ferry service between Kingston and Seattle, filed an application last week with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to provide passenger service across Puget Sound from either Southworth, Harper or Manchester.

In December, Mosquito Fleet bid on the same route.

"This has been part of our vision in terms of a system of service where communities are not being well served," said Darrell Bryan, general manager for Clipper Navigation, which joined with Argosy Cruises, Nichols Brothers Boat Builders and Tom Tougas, who runs a boat-tour company in Alaska, to form Aqua Express.

Mike Bennett, who owns Mosquito Fleet, a whale-watching company, said the entry of Aqua Express into the South Kitsap County route complicates his plans and he said he could pull out. Bennett had proposed a route from the tiny community of Harper, near Southworth, to downtown Seattle.

Complicating matters is the state, which is preparing a report to the Legislature looking at a passenger triangle route between Southworth, Vashon Island and downtown Seattle.

Ray Deardorf, the 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.

But whether the Legislature will agree to spend the money in a tight budget year to restart passenger-ferry service is a huge question.

"We've gone out on a limb with the people from Harper, and then the state hops back in," said Dick Hayes, head of Kitsap Transit. "They've done this three times over the last 12 years. As a practical political person I'll work with whoever has the route; at a gut level I wish the state would decide to stay in or stay out."

The Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific (IBU), which staffs the Washington State Ferries (WSF), has filed a protest over the Mosquito Fleet application, claiming the private ferries will take business away from the state ferries.

Further, the union argued that Mosquito Fleet hasn't proved it has the financial ability to run the route and has never undertaken a project of this magnitude.

Hayes, with Kitsap Transit, said he expected the IBU protest. "I'd have thought less of them if they hadn't," he said.

Sam Kuntz, the ferries' chief financial officer, said the state hasn't decided whether it will formally protest the application while it explores its own Southworth-Seattle route.

"Initial analysis finds that the proposed new service is estimated to draw nearly half the ridership away from the Washington State Ferries-operated Seattle-Vashon passenger-only route," Kuntz said. "It is estimated that the new service would draw over $400,000 in annual revenue from WSF, primarily from the Seattle-Vashon passenger-only route but also from the Fauntleroy-Southworth passenger-vehicle route."

State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, asked that the UTC delay consideration of the private proposals until the Legislature considers getting back into the passenger-ferry business.

"Whether privately or publicly funded, (passenger-ferry) service enjoys strong support in the Legislature," Murray said. "A quick process on your part would effectively pre-empt the legislative policy discussion of state-funded POF [passenger-only-ferry] service."

The UTC will set a hearing on the two applications.

Meanwhile, Aqua Express officials say they have no plans to compete with the state on the route.

"We're not going head-to-head with the state," said John Blackman, with Argosy Cruises, a partner in Aqua Express. "Because of the uncertainty with South Kitsap we saw it as an opportunity."

Added Bennett with Mosquito Fleet: "It's a waiting game for everyone."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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