Taxiing to victory?

Greg Nickels hopes the water taxi will get your vote.

MAYORAL CANDIDATE Greg Nickels is riding a water taxi to victory in November.

At least that's what you might think from the number of times the top challenger to Mayor Paul Schell has referred to the King County-run passenger ferry project in speeches and articles. Nickels knows that transportation and traffic are high on the list of issues Seattleites care about. The large transportation project he's been associated with, Sound Transit, is nothing to brag about. So he has been concentrating his transportation sound bites on the West Seattle water taxi. While he's been doing so, a general buzz has circulated among insiders that the water taxi is another government boondoggle, a small scale Sound Transit. So what's the lowdown on this scenic but modest link in Seattle's transit infrastructure?

The Elliott Bay Water Taxi ferries passengers between downtown's Pier 55 and Alki's Seacrest Park seven days a week, with departures on the half hour at both ends of the run. The boats run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with service until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday (and runs starting at 8:30 a.m. on weekends).

The water taxi ran on a summer-only basis during 1997, 1998, and 1999 and resumed service this May 26. The program is funded through the end of the year, says Mike Beck of the county's Department of Transportation. While not the most high-capacity system (the boats seat 82 passengers), ridership has risen from an average of 391 one-way trips daily in 1998 to 567 in 1999, and about 1,000 this year.

The water taxi averages about 31 passengers per trip and 112 passengers per hour, better averages than the bus system as a whole. "It's also slightly cheaper per rider than a bus," says Nickels.

This year's six-month program was funded with $589,000 in county money, plus a $128,000 grant from Sound Transit. King County's Beck estimates that it would take about $900,000 to run the program on a year-round basis.

While the program's future appears bright, there are costs still to come. As the current Seacrest dock is on city of Seattle park property, a new dock would have to be built at a cost of $1 million to $1.8 million. A permanent program would also require the purchase of two passenger ferries (the existing boats are operated by Argosy on a contract basis) at a cost of at least $800,000 each. All in all the water taxi seems like a modest success for Nickels—unless you're running against him.

Schell says he gets a bit annoyed at his opponent's effort to hog credit for the water taxi, as the city has provided its West Seattle dock throughout the pilot program. "The truth is it wouldn't have happened without my support and the city's support," he says, adding charitably, "I don't want to make too big a deal, because it's the only thing Greg's done except almost single-handedly wrecking Sound Transit."

Michael Grossman, campaign spokesperson for Mark Sidran's mayor- al campaign, calls Nickels' endless water taxi talk a "classic diversionary tactic" to draw attention away from his role in the financial mismanagement of Sound Transit's light-rail program. "I didn't realize the water taxi was going to be a defining issue for the electorate," he jokes.

Despite this rancor, the project's future probably doesn't depend on who gets elected mayor. Former Port commissioner Schell says he's been a proponent of short passenger ferry routes for more than a decade. "I think it's a good idea," he notes, "and I thought so when I ran for mayor the first time."

jbush@seattleweekly.com

 
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