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Thursday, February 3, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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State does the math on foot-ferry options

Seattle Times staff reporter

If the state decides to restart passenger-only ferry service with a triangle route from Seattle to Vashon Island to Southworth it will cost $3 million and the route will operate at a loss of $450,000 a year.

Those figures are included in a report presented to the Legislature yesterday assessing passenger-ferry options for Puget Sound. Except for Vashon Island, the state dropped passenger-only ferry service in September 2003 in a cost-cutting move.

Now Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald says that was a mistake. "This is an about-face," he acknowledged, and added that the maritime unions were furious when the state reduced foot-ferry service.

MacDonald said his department is not recommending the new triangle route but wants to provide information so the Legislature can decide whether to resume such passenger-only service. The only existing foot-ferry route, from Vashon, will expire this year unless the Legislature votes to maintain it.

The state ferries carry 5.7 million foot passengers a year in central Puget Sound.

The legislative report found there was no need for new passenger-only ferry routes between Mukilteo and Clinton, Kingston and Edmonds, or Seattle and Bainbridge Island. It said the Seattle-Bainbridge route has walk-on capacity on auto-and-passenger ferries through 2015.

If the state decides to begin the triangle service, it could use two mothballed ferries, the Chinook and Snohomish, which are at Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island.

Two private companies, Aqua Express and Mosquito Fleet, recently filed applications with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission to begin passenger-ferry service between the Southworth area and downtown Seattle, but both say they don't want to compete with the state.

The report to the Legislature said "a private service from Seattle to Southworth would likely siphon federal ferry funds from [Washington State Ferries] systemwide needs and dilute WSF passenger revenues on the Vashon service, without providing a superior service for customers. Private operators should not add service here. To do so would weaken an existing route."

State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, has supported passenger-ferry service and praised the report. "It recommends that we make the best use of the huge transportation investments made in the Puget Sound area — tying ferry service into local transit options like the Sounder train and buses," he said.

But the cost may be a hard sell to the Legislature.

In the report, ferry officials said one option is to continue the Seattle-Vashon service and add a direct Seattle-Southworth boat. That would require replacing the Skagit and Kalama ferries with a 149-passenger vessel and purchasing two 250-passenger boats, one to serve Seattle-Southworth and one as a backup boat. The state would sell the Chinook and Snohomish. It's estimated that it would cost $17 million to buy the boats and that the route would operate at a loss of about $1 million a year.

The other option, the triangle route, would require $3 million in capital costs: $1.2 million to redeploy the Chinook and Snohomish and $1.8 million in terminal costs. With an estimated ridership of 333,500, the route would operate at an annual loss of about $450,000.

The state study found that if the private companies begin service from Southworth, the state would lose money. If the private companies run one boat, the state ferries likely would lose $456,000 a year; with a five-boat service, the loss would grow to $1.6 million.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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