Last summer Kitsap Transit launched a fast ferry service with a single vessel. The Rich Passage I was the only low-wake boat it had to satisfy shore-erosion concerns along the passage from Bremerton to Seattle.
Since then, the Rich Passage I has missed 128 sailings, mostly because of mechanical failures. And though the vessel has been reliable since last October, Kitsap Transit’s problems aren’t over yet: In just over a month the vessel is due in drydock for the complete replacement of its engines.
It’s another challenging moment for a fast ferry service that was launched with excitement back in July. There is a state ferry to Bremerton but it takes a full hour, and Bremerton’s economy has languished as the rest of the Puget Sound region explodes with growth.
It was thought a ferry capable of doing the route in half the time would open up new options for people concerned about the cost of living and traffic on the Seattle side.
But the missed sailings, passenger unhappiness with the transit agency’s reservation system and a host of other problems have had discouraging results: in 2017 the fast ferry farebox collected only $387,000 – just over half what had been expected.
And now a problem not solved before the launch of the fast ferry is returning to haunt the service. It is still possible that the service will have to be canceled in March, when the Rich Passage I heads to drydock for new engines.
There is another vessel capable of replacing the Rich Passage I. It’s the Spirit of Kingston, owned by King County. It’s the spare vessel King County uses when one of its water taxis is out of sorts. And it meets the wake requirements for the trip to Bremerton.
It had been expected that Kitsap Transit would work out a deal with King County, both to ease the fast ferry’s operation on the Seattle side of the Sound and to have access to the replacement boat. But King County demands that the fast ferry, which is owned by Kitsap Transit, must live on the Seattle side. That would make it difficult for a Kitsap-based crew to staff the vessel. Kitsap Transit went ahead without an agreement and without the spare.
Now the prospect of weeks without any vessel is putting fresh urgency into the discussions. Kitsap Transit says there is a verbal agreement to use the Spirit of Kingston though it has not been formalized.
“It would be a crime to have accomplished all these things with the reliability and then have to take the boat out of service for a period of time and not have something to substitute,” said Darrell Bryan, Kitsap Transit’s new Marine division head.
Even if an agreement is formalized, it’s expected there will be an important provision: If a King County vessel needs to be replaced, King County gets to use its own vessel. Kitsap County could again be high and dry.
The trouble over a spare boat is only part of Kitsap’s difficult experience with the fast ferry. Passengers complain about a reservation system that forces people to drop everything and book when a window opens on a month’s worth of sailings. So many people in the system at once can slow the booking process down.
Kitsap Transit says it is starting the process of getting a new reservations system.
It also plans to purchase two new ferries to expand and stabilize the fast ferry service, at a cost of $17 million.