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Thursday, September 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Aqua Express foot ferry to shut down

Seattle Times staff reporter

Ten months after it began, Aqua Express is shutting down its passenger-ferry service between Kingston and downtown Seattle.

Blaming high fuel costs — prices have increased more than 73 percent since service began early this year — low ridership and uncertainty over whether it can expand foot-ferry service on the Kitsap Peninsula, the private ferry service said it will stop service Oct. 1.

It could resume after the Legislature completes a study on passenger-ferry service, which is now under way.

"We were very hopeful, and planned to lose money for several years," 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. "But there's a certain magnitude to the loss."

Attorney David Bruce, who rides the ferry every day from his home in Kingston, said he was disappointed by the news that Aqua Express is shutting down. "I'll ride it till the bitter end, and then I'll go back to commuting an hour and 45 minutes from Kingston to Bainbridge Island."

Besides high fuel costs, the company was stymied in its attempt to expand passenger-ferry service to Southworth. In February, it filed an application with the state for a Harper-to-downtown Seattle route, but that was put on hold when the state began exploring whether it should be in the passenger-ferry business.

The Legislature appointed an 18-member committee to review the most reliable and cost-effective way to provide passenger-ferry service. That study is under way. Complicating it is Initiative 912 on November's ballot that would repeal the recently-approved gas-tax increase and, if it passes, the state would lose a ferry.

Aqua Express said it won't compete with the state if the state decides to initiate passenger-ferry service from Southworth. But without the Southworth runs, the private company can't afford to continue foot ferries from the Kitsap Peninsula.

"If the state decides to get back into the passenger-ferry business it will have a major impact on us," said John Blackman, an Aqua Express partner. "We'll have to fall back and regroup."

The private venture was triggered by a state decision three years ago to get out of the passenger-only-ferry business.

In its filing with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission, Aqua Express estimated it would serve 284,000 passengers a year and generate nearly $1.6 million in revenue. But only about 300 people a day are riding the Aqua Express boat, about half of those needed to break even on the run, said Blackman.

Dick Hayes, head of Kitsap Transit, said his agency was poised to provide Aqua Express with a new boat financed by federal money. He said the Tyee, which now runs on the Kingston route, burns 250 gallons of gas an hour, while the new boat would burn just 100 gallons an hour. That boat will be available if Aqua Express restarts service next summer.

The only other private passenger ferry runs between Bremerton and downtown Seattle.

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

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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